Book 3 of the Falls Chance Ranch Series

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chapter 3


There was a stallion somewhere out on the wind.

The mare, turning restlessly in the bunk house stable, heard him in the early hours of the morning, very far away. The stable doors were closed and locked and she couldn’t scent him although she tried in every direction, her head lifted. She had come from open land, a band led by their own stallion, and she whickered hopefully to this new male voice, wanting his protection. His safety. But his voice was a long way off, and he came no closer.

This prison was warm, and it was quiet and dark. The man with the soft voice and gentle hands had left water and grain and the mare tried it, her belly protesting with hunger, but the pain in her mouth was too great and she stepped away from the feed bin. And turned again in her stall, twisting her head this way and that, listening for the stallion.


 Dale woke to Jasper’s hand on his shoulder and a soft voice near his ear.

“It’s a beautiful morning. How about trout for breakfast?”

It was very quiet on the landing. Whoever Riley had ended up with overnight had obviously managed to help enough that they got some sleep. Dale slipped downstairs to the laundry room to avoid disturbing anyone and found a shirt, sweater and clean jeans from the ironing stack, and along with Jasper took a jacket and his boots from the back of the kitchen door and went softly across the yard to collect the fishing tackle from the shed, and to feed the dogs who got up, yawning and stretching at the sight of them.

The grass was soft and wet under foot, leaving footprints where they walked, their breath misted in front of them, and the river was quiet and misty to the point of barely being able to see the aspen woods on the other side. Dale picked his way out across the water from rock to rock some yards from Jasper, choosing a boulder far out enough to cast his line into the middle of the water. There was a serenity in the thin morning light with the collars of their jackets turned up against the freshness of the air, to be out here in the quiet with no sound but the white haze rising from the running water all around their feet and the companionship, even without a word being spoken. They caught ten fish in swift succession, fat, silver and brown speckled, and Dale reeled in his line and came down the bank to join Jasper, who was kneeling on the rocks at the water’s edge and cleaning the fish in the current. Dale dug for his own knife and worked on his own catch alongside him with a faintly uncomfortable thought of the use he’d put it to yesterday on the wranglers’ tires. Which connected up to the mustang mare hidden in the bunkhouse stable. And the multiple problems therein.

Bandit was one of the several that had occurred to Dale driving back from the gate yesterday, leaving Riley walking the little mare. He had seen the stallion kick out a heavy rail fence without the slightest effort, and while Bandit’s intelligence and manners were impeccable, a harem stallion was entitled to believe that any mares in his vicinity naturally belonged to him. However Gucci lived in the open corral the year round, and had only once run away with Bandit when he had been patrolling around the ranch house itself. The band of mares out on the nursery pastures were perhaps six or seven miles away from the house and the stallion’s first concern would be them and their immediate territory. For the time being at least, he was unlikely to give Riley away.

The local sheriff’s office was another matter. Dale’s knowledge of how law enforcement worked out here was sketchy and he had had no time yet to research this information.

“What can you find to be wound up about at this time in the morning, in this kind of quiet?” Jasper asked without looking up.

Dale nearly dropped the fish he was holding and hurriedly grabbed it before it hit the water. Several answers came swiftly to his lips, all of them pleasant denials, and all of them he swallowed on after thinking them through. 

“I can see your shoulders up around your ears and the way you’re breathing.” Jasper said, still not looking up.

No, there really wasn’t much sense in denying it.


“I was thinking about what you said yesterday up on the hill,” he said, grabbing for the nearest vaguely truthful thing in his mind. “About being in a reflective frame of mind?”

“Yes.” Jasper said acknowledging but not picking up the conversation or taking it on in any helpful direction. Dale laid his knife down before he cut himself, yanking his thoughts together.

“And about how that affects what you – er-“

Jasper still wasn’t helping.

“See, I suppose? How did you learn about that?”

“From my grandfather.” Jasper reached over to take Dale’s catch and started work on it. “He was very traditional, you might say. He didn’t have much contact with anyone from the outside world, and he lived exactly as he was raised.”

“How was that?” Dale didn’t have to try to sound curious now. Jasper gave him a quick smile, glancing up from the work his hands were deftly carrying out.

“The heart of his beliefs were about love for the land. Touching it, being in contact with it, and understanding the energy that comes from it. There are a number of similar beliefs worldwide that all come back to the same thing; everything that is alive has energy, and your energy is drawn from what’s around you, what you touch, what you’re in contact with. Some things don’t hold good energy. Some things are energy draining. Some things are a very strong source of good energy. It’s instinctive knowledge when you think about it. Why do you think when we have an exhausted exec come out here the first thing we do is get them doing hands-on work outside, all day?”

Because being out here felt more real, more alive, than you ever felt in an office; Dale remembered that vividly from his own experience. The sensory input, the things to touch and feel and lift and smell, they were very balancing experiences, different to a corporate environment where mostly you used your eyes and your voice and very little else, and even the light and air was regulated.  

“Take your boots off.” Jasper suggested. “And your socks.”

Jasper was barefoot himself; Dale hadn’t really noticed it until now. Jasper very often waded into the river when they fished, and in warmer weather he would usually be shirtless too. It was something Dale was very familiar with and had never really questioned.

Despite a rational part of his brain pointing out that it was October, about five thirty am and freezing cold, Dale found a far less cynical part trusted Jasper implicitly and was curious to understand what he meant. He perched on the rock he crouched on and removed his riding boots and socks, putting them to one side. The rocks were surprisingly smooth, worn by centuries of water, and they felt like ice beneath his feet. Water splashed his bare skin as the river passed by; something he hadn’t been aware of through his boots.

“Sit down.” Jasper encouraged him quietly. “Right down. Get comfortable. The earth is the root of everything – all life. Even things that fly finally come back to earth, and turn back to earth. We stand on it, we build on it, we make from it. Touching it is strengthening. Healing. My Grandfather wouldn’t sit on chairs or even on blankets often, especially when he was old. He wanted the contact with the ground, to feel it and feel the life force from it. He always told me to sit or lie on the ground if I wanted to be able to think more clearly or feel more keenly.”

Dale put his hands down beside him on the rocks, watching the water passing by in front of him, strongly aware of the cold rising from the stones, touching him. Initially almost painfully cold his first instinct was to pull away – and then when he overcame that first resistance, the sensation was deeper than just simply cold. Wet, smooth, the feel connected strongly to the sound of the water, and through the stones he could feel the very faint vibrations of the river moving.

“Now close your eyes.” Jasper had laid the knife down, everything was quiet but for the sound of the water and his soft voice. “Think about your energy. It isn’t contained inside your body. If you put your hand near frost or ice without touching, you still melt it. You radiate energy out all around you. Think of yourself, the shape of yourself, feel the borders of the top of your head, your arms, and then let your awareness move out past those borders.”

That made no sense at all.    

“What do you see when you try and do that?” Jasper asked after a minute. Dale shook his head without opening his eyes.

“Just – black?”

“What does the bank look like where you’re sitting? No, keep your eyes shut.”

Dale thought about it, the image coming easily to mind. “Slightly less than two feet from the water’s edge, shallow gradient, approximately eight small rocks ahead of me, smaller gravel and sand between them, gray shading to white in places-”

“You’ve got a photographic memory.”

“Always have done.”

“Then think about seeing an image of you inside yourself, or of you looking up at the inside of the top of your head. Feel the shape and the boundaries, and then imagine the boundaries of that shape dissolving.”

It was easier to pull a specific image to mind and a second later it was as if a tight roof was taken off, or as if without opening his eyes, he had somehow looked up. Dale felt the muscles in his forehead and eyes suddenly relax and a sense of space flood through him.

“Your shoulders just relaxed down about two inches.” Jasper said and Dale laughed.

“Stop teaching him witchcraft.” Flynn’s voice said without heat. Dale heard the crunch of boots on the bank pebbles and looked up as Flynn sat down on the rocks beside him, jacket open and his hat low over his forehead.  

“You work better with visual images.” Jasper said to Dale, and passed a couple of cleaned fish to Flynn to hold as he began work on another. “We were talking about energy from the ground. And about seeing unusual things around the ranch.”

“Otherwise known as sensory integration and imaginative symbolism.” Flynn flipped a fish over in his hand. “Depending on what you want to call it.”

Jasper smiled, a rather private smile that Dale saw pass between him and Flynn, as if this was an old joke.

“I taught witchcraft to the scientist.” Jasper told Dale. “Or that’s how he likes to put it. Dale saw David up in the woods yesterday, it was on his mind.”

Flynn nodded without any more surprise than Jasper had shown, although Dale couldn’t help a brief and almost guilty glance towards him.

“Did it upset you?” Flynn asked mildly. Dale shook his head.

“It never does. If anything, it’s always a  – good – experience.”

“Then we’ve talked before about the scientific explanations.” Flynn said it calmly, watching Jasper go on cleaning fish with deft hands. “As Jasper said, you’re a very visual person. And you’re used to complex visualisations of problems, holding a lot of information in your mind.”

“And?” Dale said cautiously. Flynn glanced at him, face unmoving but Dale read his eyes without difficulty as he always could; Flynn’s eyes held a lot of warmth and somehow they included and drew him straight into the joke and the something more between him and Jasper, as if he’d always been here with them. And he had the sense of many early mornings between these two out here by the river.

“David’s a strong role model and focus for you,” Flynn said simply. “You may very well visualise him as an image for debates with yourself or to work out problems in your mind. You also haven’t had a lot of free use or practice with your imagination in your life and I think mathematicians need exceptional imaginations; externalising imagination isn’t unusual. A lot of children feel they actually physically ‘see’ what they imagine. Or, maybe, it is actually David. I’m not sure it matters what you want to call it. If it isn’t alarming, or upsetting, if you don’t envisage him telling you to do things that worry you or that are harmful, I don’t see there’s anything to worry about.”

It was so simply and reassuringly said that Dale swallowed on an overwhelming urge to kiss him, to press close to him, and Flynn’s eyes softened still further and he ran his fingers lightly over Dale’s face.

“Here here.” Jasper said, straightening up with the last fish in his hand. “I’ve never let it worry me.”


Paul, leaving Riley stirring unwillingly and still buried deep beneath the covers, dressed and checked briefly on the other rooms before he went downstairs, going to fill the kettle and put it on the stove before opening the kitchen door wide as he did every morning. Every day that the weather allowed it, even if it was cold, there was something about the fresh swell of air to Paul that seemed to rejuvenate the house in the mornings. Or perhaps it was a habit learned from David, who disliked the prison of four closed walls, and who preferred to spend as much of his time as possible outside.

Kettle warming, Paul went out onto the porch, rubbing his arms briskly against the chill. The stable and barn was unlocked and the heavy latches lifted; the horses were grazing and dozing in the corral in the still murky light, and he could see three figures walking together across the grass in the home pasture, coming from the direction of the river.

Trout for breakfast then.

Paul went back into the kitchen to the bread dough he’d left to rise last night, and put it into the oven, then took a skillet out of the cupboard and collected butter and peppercorns which he cracked himself while he waited for the kettle to boil. They would climb the gate in the home pasture, not bothering to open it, and come in cold and exhilarated from the river and the early exercise; he knew the look well in Flynn and Jasper in fall, but it was new in Dale, and Paul watched him as they came in from the porch, pausing in the doorway to take off boots and hats and jackets, fish on the lines in their hands.

Soft, dark hair scattered and no longer painfully short or neat, colour in his face from the cold, the differences in him now to just a few months ago were subtle but they gave Paul a great deal of satisfaction. Even in the smallest things like the cut of his well fitted jeans which emphasised his long legs and slender hips, and the sweater which was one of his own choosing and in his preferred dark blue, v necked under his open shirt collar, he looked focused. And cared for. Dale might not have the slightest idea why Paul insisted he wore a particular cut of jeans, or why one colour should matter over another, and Paul knew he barely glanced in mirrors, his eyes always checking he was tidy and that his clothes were straight rather than really looking at himself- he was as neat in his own appearance as he was in how he kept his belongings, Paul knew even if Dale didn’t that he wouldn’t touch a shirt with a button missing, and Flynn’s room had always been severely tidy but these days was becoming show-home immaculate. But very gradually, over time, Paul could see Dale starting to show more conscious choice in how he looked. He was starting to get in the habit of seeing himself in clothes he liked, in which he looked attractive rather than camouflaged, and in the habit of the others responding to it. Flynn and Jasper might not notice one particular cut of jeans over another either, but they certainly knew what they liked looking at, and Dale felt them looking even if he wasn’t consciously aware of it. It was exactly these unsaid, unseen but constantly sensed things that were the cornerstones of self esteem.   

It was a very long and gradual learning curve for him, compared to Riley who was easily confident in what he liked and how he looked, and compared to Flynn who on the surface couldn’t be bothered but had extremely strong boundaries around what he would and wouldn’t wear. No one had ever taught Dale pride in, or even real awareness of his own appearance and what part that played in his sense of identity. It was to do with his being his own person instead of someone else’s person, and in the name of not becoming another one of those someone else’s, Paul didn’t interfere. Just let the habits build and quietly enjoyed the results.  

There was still that faintly surprised pleasure in his face sometimes; it was there this morning when Paul took the fish from him and kissed him good morning, and it went to Paul’s heart every time. Always unassuming, Dale was so very perceptive in some ways and so utterly unaware in others, it stamped on every protective instinct Paul had.

He fried the trout as the bread baked, creating a scent that rapidly brought Riley downstairs, as exuberant as though yesterday had never happened. Paul saw Dale watching and obviously not fully understanding as Riley cheerfully wound his arms around Flynn’s neck and kissed him, sat down and enthusiastically ate trout and warm bread in large amounts, chattering with his mouth full about the river and the best stretches for fishing. He got up as soon as he was done eating.

“I want to make a start on clearing the woods this morning, it’s going to be a hell of a job and we don’t have that long before the snows start – Dale, if I take the low land at the back here behind the bunkhouse would you make a start on Mustang Hill and work down that slope?”

Paul saw Dale give Riley rather an acute look, but nod at once.

“I can do that.”

“Great, come on and I’ll show you what to do.”

Flynn leaned over to catch Riley’s hand before he reached his boots by the door.

“You’ve got half an hour to spend in the corner here this morning before you go anywhere near the woods-”

“Flynn!” Riley protested.

“- thinking about why we don’t kick chairs around when we’re upset.” Flynn went on immoveably. “Put your plate in the sink and go ahead.”

“I’ve got stuff to do!”  

“Yes.” Flynn buttered another piece of bread. “You’ve got that corner to stand in. Now.”

Riley didn’t take himself there with anything like good grace, and it took a firm order from Flynn for him to settle down and stand still. He was still there when Dale and Flynn finished breakfast, and Flynn gave Riley a tolerant look as he put his jacket on.

“You see to the dishes when you’re done please, then you can make a start on the woods. I’ll show Dale what to do up on Mustang Hill. Do not take power tools out alone, we’ll do that in pairs in a few days when there’s a good amount of wood to shift. You’ve been there ten minutes so far, you’ll be finished at five past eight.”

That raised a movement from Riley that reminded Paul of a horse sidling, although he didn’t look around.

“I’ll watch the time for you.” Paul told him, getting up to start clearing the table, and watching Dale pull his boots on. Apparently relaxed, unconcerned about the waiting project upstairs in the office, and despite having by far the most fragile appetite of the five of them, his plate was clean. He loved fresh trout; Paul thought in part because he loved the company and the peace of fishing, and wondered if Dale realised how strategic was Jasper’s casual suggestion of fishing this morning.   


Out in the yard, Flynn led Dale over to the small shed beside the barn which contained a wall rack of tools and coils of ropes, and began to pack tools into one of the canvas bags.  

“You’ll get a lot of practice at this. We spend weeks around this time of year clearing out the woods, it’s a major part of the fall work.”

They took tools with them out through the gate by the corral and walked up the long, sloping hay pasture to the edge of Mustang Hill, and Flynn led Dale into the woodland, putting the bag of tools down on the mulch under their feet.

“This area is going to take a good few days, the brush is always very thick in here. What you’re looking for is dead wood. There’s tape in the bag; where you find dead or fallen trees, tie tape on to mark them and when you have a batch needing shifting we’ll come up here with the shire horses and the power tools and cut and drag the lot in one go. We cut and dry off wood worth keeping, and we’ll have a few bonfires of the scrub we can’t use. Cut down dead or broken branches, clear the paths, cut back overhangs. Look for vines around the trees, cut them off at the base – you don’t need to pull them down, just cut and leave them, they’ll rot down by themselves.”

Flynn pulled the knife from his pocket and Dale watched him locate a vine and make a few swift cuts in the base of the vine.

“Like that, that’s all you need to do. Two cuts near the base. Leave every one in four vines whole, we do that every year, it leaves enough habitat for the woods to be useful without getting out of control. And rake out the creeper over the ground, it smothers everything trying to grow underneath it. Just pull the debris and dead wood into heaps, we can bring the sleds up here later and move it. Take your time, there’s no hurry, and this does not have to be pristine. Clear and safe for stock will do. Understood?”

“Yes sir.”

Flynn dropped a light and caressing hand on the seat of his jeans and patted. “Good. I’ll work with you for a bit, put some gloves on and let’s get started.”

It was hard, physical work and actually it was as deeply sensory and satisfying as the hay harvest had been. It was always easy to work alongside Flynn, he set the working pace he always did, steady and capable, and in half an hour of work, pulling the dropped and dead branches aside, raking out the thick Virginia creeper that grew in places over a foot deep on the ground, and cutting back the intruding branches and bushes that blocked the path, there was a large patch of noticeably clear woodland where the sunlight entered more easily, the light was stronger and the woodland floor was visible.

“That’s what you’re aiming for.” Flynn said when they stopped, straightening up to look at his watch. “I need to go out and do the stock work, Riley’ll be down the hill if you need help or you’re not sure what to do. Come down for lunch.”

He put an arm around Dale’s waist to kiss him and Dale put gloved hands up to hold Flynn’s head for a minute.

“Was Riley ok last night?” he said when Flynn let him go to breathe.

“Once he calmed down.” Flynn said bluntly, leaning his forehead against Dale’s. “Were you? I missed you.”

“I agreed with Jas, we were safer staying out of it.” Dale said dryly. Flynn smiled, snatched another of his deep, searching kisses and lightly swatted his butt.

“Too right. I’ll see you later, kid.”

Dale worked for several hours in the strengthening sunshine in the woods, enjoying the quiet, the hands on connection with the wood and the grass, the intense sensory contact of it and the satisfaction of seeing it change under his hands. He had always in his life worked hard, not knowing how to do it any other way, but out here you had total control over what you did and how you did it, and it was deeply gratifying, deeply grounding to see things change and become clear and orderly. Only when he was tired, when his back ached beyond ignoring, he stopped and took the water bottle from the tool bag, unscrewed the top, and almost without thinking, meandered up towards the peak of the hill to the place among the trees where nothing grew.

The clearing was lighter than the rest of the woods, the break in the canopy let light flood down inside, and birds chattered and sang in the trees above his head. The sunlight picked out the carvings on the rock where he’d scratched the lichen away yesterday, and Dale sat down on the earth in front of it while he drank the rest of the water, putting out a hand to brush over the carvings. And after a minute of thought, here, with no one to see, he did as Jasper had taught him this morning. Felt the earth beneath him, felt his hand on the rock, breathed the cool of the fall morning air and the soil and mulch scent of the ground, and felt the sunlight on his face. And when he concentrated on that image again of his own outline dissolving, of lifting out beyond that, he felt the same rush of calm, as if a headache he’d barely been aware of had faded. 

It was the sound of the birds above just stopping - suddenly, abruptly, that caught Dale's attention and made him open his eyes. The chatter just ceased. There was something wonderful and focussing about the hush, a sense of waiting as though something was about to happen. The green canopy around the edges of the clearing was lit with sunlight, like the vaulted ceilings of a cathedral, with the clearing itself open to the vast blue of the sky above. It was beautiful. And then without warning there was an explosion of panicked wings and birds flying upwards, all over the woods. Dale saw several of them shoot through the canopy, racing away as if from some predator. And then there was silence, which was very different from the hush. Absolute silence. Not even the trees seemed to be moving.

There was no sign of David.

Dale was still looking upwards, trying to see what had startled the birds when he heard the low whistle of wind starting very, very softly in the distance. The whistle rose and the bushes moved as the gust emerged from the woods and crossed the floor of the clearing, brushing a swirl of leaves ahead of it. It came directly towards Dale, a gentle swirl of soft, bright autumn colours, reds and golds, and then as the dancing leaves reached his boot they abruptly blasted upwards and Dale flung his arms up to protect his face, stumbling to his feet in shock. For a moment the wind buffeted him violently and the leaves stung his face and arms, twisting around him and battering at him. And then just as suddenly, the wind dropped, the leaves sailed softly and harmlessly down around him to rest on the earth and there was silence in the clearing again but for his heart hammering. In the distance one of the dogs was barking frantically. And then the wind rose again. Dale heard the whisper of it starting in the distance but the trees and leaves in the clearing didn't stir. The sound grew slowly, steadily louder, and then the leaves began to lift and churn again and the tree branches around him began to lash, until Dale ducked to cover his head. There was no whistle this time, instead there was a sigh that grew louder and louder until instead of the movement of air through the wood  it took on the awful approximation of a voice, a deep male voice and the sound was a harsh, rusty “ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” that grew deafening.

Something bright flashed in the trees as the branches lashed, and there was a steady pounding on the ground, something large - very large and very heavy approaching at full gallop. Dale reflexively rolled aside as something burst out of the thicket behind him, there but unseen - Dale heard for a minute the thunder of massive hooves shake the earth so near him he felt the heat of the invisible thing go by. And then the clearing was silent again.

In the distance, rather tremulously, one single bird chirped.

Animal instinct tore him to his feet and Dale fled, incoherently, blindly, running without the faintest idea of where he was running to. It wasn’t until he burst out of the trees in the bright sunlight by the river that he stopped, leaned over a rock with both palms on it, and abruptly retched hard, painfully, throwing up into the grass. He was shaking all over with pure terror, less from the sounds than from the sheer feel of what had been in that clearing. The shocking transition from a calm sunny day and the beauty in the clearing to that utter terror, that feeling of being lashed with something dark and grim and overwhelmingly aggressive.

It was some time before he unfroze enough to go unsteadily to the water’s edge and wash his face and his still trembling hands.


That didn’t happen.

The entire time he finished clearing the section of woodland he was working on, Dale focused on his hands and repeated to himself, steadily.

That did not happen. The dog barked, it was some freak weather condition. What do you know about the realities of weather or climate out here? You’ve never worked outside in fall before. It was just an over active imagination and a lot of nonsense, it didn’t happen.

Working down the slope, well away from the clearing, he heard a whinny from the direction of the bunkhouse, far away down the hill, and came out of the trees in time to see Riley emerge from the bunkhouse stable and shut the door. The little mustang mare was obviously still hidden.

If it isn’t alarming, or upsetting, I don’t see there’s anything to worry about,  Flynn had said that morning.

So if it is alarming and upsetting then I guess your mental health probably isn’t as sound as you’d hoped.

There was some little, cowardly part of him that wanted to run, and go on running – down the hill to find Flynn, or Paul, or Jasper, and cling to them, and it was so pathetic that Dale fiercely stifled it and pulled himself together. And went on working.

He would have preferred to have worked through lunch. As his watch ticked past twelve, the acid in his stomach grew and he found himself working faster, analysing evasive strategies and excuses and knowing how pathetic they were.

If you don’t go, someone will come and get you. If you turn up looking a mess, they’ll assume that you’re obsessing, that you made yourself sick by rushing at it, and they won’t let you work alone. And if you explain what you just let yourself imagine up there.....?

There wasn’t any viable escape.

At twelve thirty he came to the edge of the woodland and finished the flask of water, poured the rest into his palm and ran his hand through his hair, pushing it back from his face. It was hot out here now, there was a steady, pulsing ache behind his eyes, and looking down at the house he was almost nostalgic for the days when no one cared if he ate or not, and certainly not at what times, when it was easy to get rid of people and be alone until he had full control of himself.

It was not better then. You’re fine. Just pull it together.

He began the steady walk down the hill, sternly dragging his stomach under control, forcing his jaw and shoulders to relax, his hands to relax. They noticed things like that, they minded about things like that. Flynn had bordering on x-ray vision for things like that. It was going to be necessary to be calmly, conversationally normal, to smile, to make small talk, to eat. Dale clamped down on the immediate swell of gorge at the thought with a harsh order to himself not to be ridiculous.

Nothing happened, you do not need nursing through every bloody crisis. You’re fine. Quit it.

They were gathering in the kitchen around the table, Riley was talking noisily about the thickness of the brambles in the woods out behind the bunkhouse and Dale managed to escape into the bathroom without being seen. There he washed his hands, his face, straightened his clothes and then risked a look into the mirror. Not bad; he looked tidy and perfectly sane. For a moment he leaned with both hands on the cold porcelain and breathed, the deep, steady breaths Flynn taught him that stabilized. Oriented. Then he straightened up and went to join the others.  

Riley caught his eye and Dale smiled at him at him as he sat down. Paul put a dish of salad down on the table, took one look and froze, putting a hand under Dale’s chin to lift his face.

“Good grief, what happened to you?”

There is nothing to see! You cannot possibly see anything!

Dale shut his mouth on an outburst of indignation and from somewhere found a civil tone and a calm expression.


He stopped, aware of Paul, Flynn and Jasper all with their eyes on him, Flynn with his eyebrows slightly raised.

“Good thinking.” Paul told him pointedly. “You’re pale grey and from the look of your eyes, you’ve got a thumping headache. When did that start?”

That was, blessedly, the truth. Dale breathed out, grabbing the excuse with relief.

“I don’t know, I didn’t really notice.”

Paul drew his chair out, putting a hand on his shoulder to urge him up.

“Come upstairs, I’ll get you some painkillers.”

It was quiet upstairs. Dale trailed Paul into the bathroom and watched him take painkillers out of the cabinet and fill a glass of water, handing both to him. While Dale knocked them back, Paul ran a washcloth under the tap, folded it and pressed it against the back of his neck, where it immediately reduced the intensity of the ache behind his eyes. It still touched Dale that they made so much fuss of such small things instead of just assuming he knew how to use a pack of Tylenol.

“If a headache starts, if you feel ill, you don’t carry on and ignore it, you come back here and you tell me.” Paul told him, resting the back of his hand on Dale’s forehead. “You were up on the hill clearing brush weren’t you? It’s probably the light flickering through the trees.”

“It’s not that bad,” Dale said positively, handing back the glass. Paul rinsed it and put it away one handed, not moving the washcloth.

“Good. Do you want to eat anything?”

Dale’s stomach revolted at the thought and it must have shown in his face as he saw Paul wince for him.

“I’ll take that as a no. Go undress and lie down honey, I’ll be there in a minute.”

” Dale, given the washcloth, gave him a stunned look and Paul pushed him gently towards the landing.

“You heard me. It will not kill you to lie down, I won’t let the gremlins get you.”

But it’s only a headache.

Paul turned him back by the elbow, reversed him and swatted him, briskly enough across the back of his nearest leg to make him yelp with surprise.

 “Dale, don’t give me that look. Go and do as I asked.” 
“It really isn’t that bad-”

“I’m not sure how good a judge you are of this kind of thing, and I don’t care anyway,” Paul informed him. “I don’t like my people walking around the place looking the colour you look right now. Want to undress and lie down or do I need a hairbrush?”

It was said in his usual, comfortable tone, Paul was not good at sounding cross, but that didn’t make him any less convincing. On reflection, Dale moved where Paul pointed, went into the bedroom and as a compromise sat down on the end of his and Flynn’s bed. ‘My people’. That was sweet, and it was far more comforting than Paul probably knew. His head truly was thumping. About in line with his stomach, which had been boiling with acid long enough to make him feel severely nauseous. Dale put both hands to his temples and pressed hard, willing the ache back. Headaches were things you worked with. They were just there. No more than a mild nuisance.

There was a quiet click as Paul put a glass of milk down on the dressing table and disappeared for a minute. Dale, still massaging his temples, looked up as he reappeared with an elderly wooden hairbrush in hand, and hastily got up in alarm. Paul sat down on the bed, pulled Dale to him by the waistband of his jeans and unbuttoned them, pulling them down as efficiently as he folded laundry. Dale watched him with a stupid sense of disbelief that lasted even through Paul taking his arm and tugging him down over his very capable lap. He felt his shorts pulled south, Paul’s arm over his waist, and then the first sound spank of the hairbrush landed squarely across one cheek of his now bare butt, making him yelp out loud with shock as much as the sting. For Paul, that was hard. Five more landed just as hard, moving between alternate cheeks, and each solid spank smarted like a swarm of bees. At the sixth, Paul drew his shorts back up into position, helped Dale to his feet and got up, levelling the hairbrush at him.

“I said, ‘undress and lie down’. Not ‘go as far as your room and look politely like you’re humouring me’. Now do as I asked you.”

It was not possible to present any kind of cohesive argument to someone who had just turned you bare butt over their lap, and who was still holding a hairbrush. Hurriedly escaping from his jeans around his ankles, Dale did exactly as he was told. Paul presented him with the milk once he was under the covers, drawing the curtains to shield the bed from the sun while Dale drank. It quietened the roiling in his stomach and reduced the ache there. Paul took the empty glass, pulling the covers up over him and shaking them straight.  

“I don’t want to hear a foot on the floor without your asking me first, I’ll tell you when you can get up. Try and sleep.”

He removed the book from Dale’s nightstand and from Flynn’s, and left the hairbrush in clear and pointed sight on Dale’s chest of drawers.

Left alone, hearing Paul’s footsteps fading away downstairs, Dale let out a hiss between his teeth, turned onto his side and very tenderly ran a hand down inside his shorts over the two bright red, hot and radiating ovals, one on each cheek of his backside. Paul had a knack of seriously catching your attention when he wanted to. The sharp smart was extremely orienting, as was the shock of going from fully dressed to bare and upended across Paul’s lap. For a few minutes with most of his mind taken up entirely with the smarting and the very real and urgent desire not to annoy Paul any further, it was hard to think about anything else. It was permission to stop.

Folding his arms under his pillow and turning face down, a lot more attention being demanded by the blazing throb of his rump than by the aching in his head, Dale found himself breathing deeply for the first time in a few hours and being strongly aware of the comfort of being under the covers, within the house. The pillows carried the familiar clean scent of all the linen and clothes in this house, it was reassuring, and still more reassuring was the faint, lingering and very unique scent of Flynn. Dale lay and breathed him and finally felt the last of the tremors in his legs die out and go away.

He slept for a while when the painkillers kicked in, unaware of the several times that Paul looked in on him. It was several hours later when Paul brought a mug of tea and a slice of toast in, finding him lying awake with his arms behind his head. Dale rolled over towards him, abashed and not sure what to say, but Paul sat down on the side of the bed and handed him the toast as if there was no such thing as hairbrushes. Dale pulled himself up, sitting on a definitely tender backside to take the plate. The toast was hot and buttered, and neatly cut into triangles.

“It’s not long until dinner but I thought you might be hungry.” Paul told him. “How’s the headache?”

“Gone.” Dale said honestly. Paul smoothed his hair back from his forehead, again resting the back of his fingers there. Whatever he felt appeared to reassure him; he let go and watched Dale eat.

“Good. I’ll run you a bath and you can soak for a while before dinner.”

“I really don’t need to.” Dale finished the toast and surrendered the plate, sincere and feeling himself flush like a ten year old. “Paul, I’m sorry about.....”

“That’s quite ok.” Paul put a hand behind his head and kissed his cheek, warmly and whole heartedly. “And you still really do have to take a bath. Your book’s on my bed.”

Paul believed in baths considerably deeper, hotter and longer than Dale would ever have thought of if left to his own devices. He lay back for some time in the comforting pressure of the steaming water and read, hearing people come in downstairs and the shower running but not liking to move without permission. He heard Riley’s familiar footfall run up the stairs and then Riley appeared around the door, half dressed.

“Hey. Feeling better?”

“Yes thanks.” Dale dropped his voice, grabbing the opportunity to ask what he had been thinking all day. “How is she? I didn’t want to go and see in case....”

“She’s doing ok – or she was this morning.” Riley shouldered into a clean shirt. “Thanks for taking the hill woods, that made it much easier to get in and see her without getting spotted. I’m going to run down now while Flynn and Jas are showering and give her another bran, she didn’t eat much. How mad did Paul get? He hates when people are sick and don’t say.”

“Mad.” Dale said dryly. Riley grinned and disappeared into the hallway. He reappeared a moment later, looking shocked.

“Is that a hairbrush in your room? You actually got him to get a hairbrush?”

“And use it.” Dale said acidly.

Riley stared, and exasperated, Dale rolled far enough over in the bath for Riley to see one of the still clearly pink ovals. Riley’s eyebrows went higher still and he laughed.

Seriously? I’ve heard the threats when someone’s gone far enough, but you’re the first person I know to ever push him to actually do it! I didn’t think that thing really existed!”

“Welcome to my reality.” Dale said still more acerbically.

He could hear Riley laughing all the way downstairs.

It was a while before Flynn came upstairs and told him he could get out and dress, and he stood waiting while Dale dried himself and put on clean clothes. He didn’t say anything, arms folded across his chest and propping up the doorpost, eyes watchful, hair damp, clean shirt crisp, but once Dale was dressed, Flynn held out a hand, his fingers twisted warmly around Dale’s and they walked hand in hand downstairs to the kitchen. Flynn paused as they reached the table, eyes caught by something outside, then he let go of Dale and went fast out onto the porch, and Dale followed him, watching Riley run at full sprint up the porch steps to grab Flynn’s arm, dragging him towards the yard.

“Flynn, there’s a mustang mare up in the bunk house stable and she’s sick, she’s a lot worse than this morning - I’ve done everything I can think of for her, she’s sweating and her hock’s more swollen, I don’t know what else to do-“

Flynn gently freed his arm and went to get his boots.

“Ok, let’s take a look at her. Then if need be I’ll go and get Clara, she’ll be home by now.”

He was sounding calm for Riley; Dale could see him doing it, and could see it was working, Riley stood and waited for him, and Flynn jogged down the steps as soon as his boots were on, keeping pace with Riley back across the line of paddocks towards the bunk house. Jasper touched Dale’s arm, nodding him towards his own boots and Dale glanced back and saw both Paul and Jasper taking jackets and preparing to follow, leaving dinner on the table.

The bunk house stable was quiet, warm and clean as every other stall on this ranch. Flynn waited quietly in the doorway of the stable for a moment, letting the delicate tan coloured mare catch his scent. She was shivering a little despite the warmth, and her head was hanging down. She barely bothered to move away from him although she looked towards Riley in a way that said she confidently expected good things from him. Riley had a knack of gaining the confidence of any beast. This pretty little mare had known some hard treatment and recently; the cuts and scuffs on her blond hide said it all. Flynn held out a hand to her, moving around her quietly and firmly enough not to alarm her, and keeping his voice low.

“All right sweetheart – all right. Stand. Ri, she’s beautiful. Look at that face. Amazing bones, she must be real old Mustang stock. What’s her name?”

“I’ve been calling her Mia.” Riley said hesitantly.

The mare lifted her nose to Flynn and he put a hand up to rub it as he looked her over.

“Who’s been battering you then, Mia? What a mess they’ve made of you.”

Riley spoke softly and anxiously, watching him.

“Someone’s yanked her mouth to bits, it’s very bruised. She isn’t even really drinking warm water. I gave her an antibiotic shot last night and I’ve been feeding her bran mash, she’s took a little bit of that this morning but she wouldn’t take anything this evening. I thought she needed the calories as much as the soft food.”

“She does, she’s half starved.” Flynn ran a competent, firm hand down Mia’s flank, assessing, then patted. “You’ve done all the right things, halfpint. I don’t think she’s as bad as she looks. Less sick than scared, run down and miserable, and feeling sorry for herself. What do you think about poulticing this hock?”

“I thought about it, but I didn’t want to spook her.”

Jasper was standing with Dale and Paul in the doorway, and Flynn saw him move quietly away, heading in the direction of the stables and the tack room where they kept the stock drugs and medical care equipment.   

“Let’s give it a try.” he said to Riley. “If we take it slowly I think you can talk her in to it and it’ll reduce the inflammation and pain. Have you tried her on peppermints?”

“Yes, she likes them.”  

“Good. We can try melting a few in warm water, that might tempt her to drink. Maybe ask Paul to heat some oats too, she might take that as a change from bran, and cut her some fresh soft grass instead of the hay. And get her under a heat lamp and in some good deep bedding, make her feel more comfortable. I’ll go see to that, you walk her down to the stables, we’ll put her in the loose box there, it’s nearer and its better insulated.”

“I love you so much.” Riley grabbed Flynn and gave him a swift, tight hug, and Flynn returned it hard.  

“Get her down to the stables and get the heat lamp on, I’ll be with you in a minute.”

The competency of Flynn and Riley working together was fascinating. Dale leaned on top of the stall next to the big loose box and watched them handle the little mare, wrapping the swollen hock in a steaming poultice Jasper brought to them, and a bandage over the top that she couldn’t lick off. Paul brought out cooked oats and a mug of peppermints melted in boiling water, and Riley tipped the cupful into the mare’s water.  Already under the heat lamp she was beginning to look more alert, and Flynn rubbed her down, moving his hands firmly and steadily over her while Riley held her head.

“Dale, bring Nekkid in and put him in the next stall. The company might cheer her up a bit, and Nekkid won’t bother her.”

No, the big easy going gelding was one of the older riding horses, one of Paul’s favourites to ride, and Dale had seen them use him before as a companion to give confidence to very young or nervous horses.  Friendly without being pushy, he tended to give a calm good example and horses were social animals who liked a strong lead to follow especially when they were under stress. Dale went out to the now dark corral with a head collar and Nekkid paced willingly with him to the stable and into the stall next door, putting his head over the gate to look with his large eyes at the mare. She put her head up towards him, and he huffed a few times, watching with interest until Dale put hay up in his feed net. Hay was a treat for the horses in the corral and Nekkid didn’t waste time digging his nose into it. That also appeared to reassure the mare.

Jasper glanced out of the doorway at the sound of a car engine.

“That’s the Sheriff.”

He didn’t sound surprised, and neither did Flynn, who put a hand up to hush Riley’s alarm, took his arm and steered him out of the loose box, shutting it behind them.

“It’s ok halfpint, we’ll deal with it.”

He followed Jasper out into the yard, Paul, Riley and Dale followed them. He had vague memories of seeing the Sheriff before, the day he and Riley walked through the Three Traders mine, and he recognised the moustached, round middle man who smiled at them.

“Hey. That the mare you got in there?”

“Come and see her.” Flynn invited.

The Sheriff shut his car door and ambled with them into the stable, digging his hands in his jacket pockets to watch the mare who was drinking carefully from her water trough.

“Well her injuries tie up with what witnesses have been describing. I’ll take some pictures, that ought to help a prosecution stick. They only had the one horse with them – her – but there was plenty of evidence they’d been carrying other horses in the truck they were trying to make a run for it in. Sad thing for them was the truck wasn’t going nowhere. All eight tires flat as pancakes, it couldn’t move a foot on the grass.”

“Tyres slashed?” Paul demanded. The Sheriff shook his head.

“Nope, not a speck of damage. Just the air let out of them and the valves neatly put beside each tyre. Reckon someone thought they shouldn’t be driving anywhere too quickly.”

Riley looked sharply at Dale, who slipped the multi tool knife out of his pocket – the same one they all carried – and held it where Riley could see it. The miniature wrench had been most useful.

“Want a cup of tea, Charles?” Paul asked, “We were just about to eat dinner, you’re welcome to join us.”

“Well that’s a very kind offer but I’ve got to head back into Jackson and finish the paperwork on this, I just wanted to check in and see the mare for myself.” Charles leaned on the gate, putting a competent hand out to rub the mare’s nose. “Pretty little thing, isn’t she?”

“The wranglers need shooting.” Riley said bitterly from behind them. “You can see she’s feral. She must have been captured from a wild herd – or bought from someone selling captured wild mustangs.”

“Oh she was illegally obtained. No doubt of that.” The Sheriff sounded wry and watching the expertise of his hand on the mare’s neck, Dale realised he was a horse man himself. Of course most people out here would be. “Probably captured from the Adobe herd from what the wranglers are saying. The two clowns running the rough stock show bought her from a salesman, I’ve got a colleague out Adobe way who’ll be following that salesman up.”

“What do you want to do about the mare?” Paul asked. He had a hand on Riley, Dale could see it although it was low enough to be discreet.  

The Sheriff straightened up, walking back towards the yard.

“Well that’s always the hard part once feral stock’s been recovered. She’s not fit for release, even if we could find exactly where she was captured, or what of her herd is left, or where they’re roaming. Can’t just turn her loose, I’d have animal welfare all over me. I guess there’s animal sanctuaries I could find to come get her and take her off your hands, give her shelter, but.... too many feral horses end up sold for meat. Hate to see that happen to a pretty little thing like her.”

“She’s got all the sanctuary she needs right here.” Riley said sharply.

The Sheriff smiled, giving him a nod. “Then considering you won her in good faith and you’re happy to keep her, I reckon I’m happy to hand her over to you and thank you for giving her a good home.”

“And the Feds won’t have a problem with that?” Riley demanded. The Sheriff snorted.

“Don’t much matter what the Feds think, my powers exceed theirs. Glad to see she’s in good hands. I’ll take those pictures. Dale, thank you for the tip off, it was much appreciated.”


It took a while for the Sheriff to take the pictures and when he left, Mia was nosing at her oats and took several mouthfuls of her water. They stood in the lantern lit stable hallway and watched her for a few minutes, and then Paul put his hands on Riley’s shoulders.

“Riley? Come in now honey. She’s taken care of, and we need to eat.”

“I don’t want to leave her.” Riley had been leaning on the gate, and Flynn picked up the safety lamp to take with them.

“She’s probably ready for some peace and quiet, halfpint. You don’t need to worry about her, she’s looking a lot more comfortable.”

Riley still didn’t move. He looked strained and tired, and Flynn put an arm around him, hugged him quietly and tightly, putting the reassurance into his arms and his voice.

“It’s ok. We’ll hear her if she needs help and I’ll come out and check on her in a couple of hours.”

That worked. Riley moved towards Paul and Paul put an arm around him, walking with him across the dark yard towards the house. Flynn took a moment more to check the mare had everything she needed before he shut up and locked the stable and walked with Dale and Jasper across to the house, murmuring to the dogs that came with them and curled up in their sheltered beds underneath the porch. In a few more weeks they’d need their warmer winter quarters in the barn at night. 

Riley cast several anxious looks at Flynn as they sat down, Paul took the dishes out from the oven where they’d been left to stay warm, and Flynn served himself, picking up his fork and taking several mouthfuls that said he was starving before he leaned on the table and looked at Riley.

“So do you want to tell me the rest of the story?”

Riley looked at the table for a moment and Dale heard the hesitation in his voice.

“....She was being used at the fair as a bucking horse. There was some scratch half assed rough stock show. She was scared out of her mind, you can see the state she’s in, and those – bastards – were selling rides as a bucking horse for five bucks a pop.”

“What did you do about it?” Paul asked, looking from him to Dale. “Dale, you called the Sheriff’s office?”

Riley shook his head. “Dale had nothing to do with it. I bought her.”

“But I did call the Sheriff’s office?” Dale pointed out, surprised.

“And these wranglers handed her over to you just like that?” Flynn said quietly to Riley.  

Riley shrugged, not looking at him. “Mac Dolan was there, he helped.”


Riley stirred his meal briefly with his fork and put it down, still looking anywhere but him. It was so painful an evasion Dale put his own fork down, losing the nerve to stand up to it. Flynn tapped quietly on the table.


“.......... I rode her.” Riley admitted.

“You rode her?” Paul said in alarm.

“I made a bargain that if I could sit her for two minutes they’d sell her to me. Two minutes, that's all, and that was after I got her trust.  It wasn't dangerous.”

“You mounted a feral horse in a dodgy rough stock show.” Flynn repeated.

Riley looked at him, soft eyes pleading.

“I had to do something!  She was terrified, you’ve seen her!”

Flynn let out an explosive sound between his teeth. “Ri you know what kind of tricks can be used at bad rough stocks! she could have been drugged, hobbled, there could have been anything under her saddle to make sure she threw a rider, you had no way of knowing!”

“I was careful with her, I had her in a circle until I was sure she trusted me before I got on, I took her bit out and didn’t touch her mouth and I checked her saddle.  She was tired and she just stood there, didn't buck or anything.  I did everything I could to make sure it was safe.”

“Riley, she’s feral!”

Riley picked up his fork and poked at his food, knowing there was nothing to say to that that he hadn't already tried.

“And when you sat her, these men just handed her over?” Flynn asked him.

“I paid $100 for her, if I could sit her for two minutes.”

“And they just let her go?”

“Mac was there, they didn’t dare mess with him. It was his trailer we used to get her home.”

“Did it come to a fight?” Jasper asked quietly. Riley shook his head and Flynn breathed out.

“Are you sure they didn’t follow you home? Really sure?”

I’m sure. I let their tires down, and the Sheriff arrived just as we left.” Dale said briefly.

And that was so typical of Dale, not to hinder Riley in the slightest but to have their exits swiftly manned and covered, in ways Riley wouldn’t have begun to think of. Flynn put his fork down, aware Riley wasn’t going to eat anything more. He got up and held out a hand and Riley gave him a look of flat appeal.


“Come on halfpint. Let’s go and talk about this.”

Slowly Riley got up and put his hand in Flynn’s.

Jasper leaned on the table when they were gone, giving Dale a pleasantly quizzical look.

“So that’s what you’d summarise as a ‘busy’ afternoon?”

Flynn led Riley into the study, snapped the light on and shut the door behind them, going to the desk and withdrawing the lexan paddle from the bottom drawer. Riley winced at the sight of it.

“Flynn please, we don’t need that one....”

“Riley, I'm going to teach you to stop and think before you dive to the rescue if it takes me until we're both geriatric.” Flynn shut the door and faced him, putting a hand against Riley’s face for a minute, a white face with large eyes that at the moment was giving him wholehearted attention. 

“I love that you feel so strongly, I do. But you can't just dive in by yourself! Pick up the phone. One of us would have come out and helped you, we’d have done something to sort it out but without you risking getting beaten up by bent wranglers or trampled by a feral horse!”

“You know Dale would never have let that happen!” Riley protested.

“You know that’s not the point.” Flynn sat down on the couch and held out a hand. It took a moment for Riley to come to him, to accept that this was inevitably going to happen, and when he did it was by inches.


Riley worked on them, not looking at him and fumbling with the buttons, and Flynn drew Riley down over his lap before he had them down, finishing the job himself and pulling his shorts down after the denim.

“We talked about this when the barn was broken into at harvest. How long ago was that?”

Riley was clutching the couch with both hands, his back rigid and his voice high. “A couple months?” 

“Less than two. Not long, is it?”

“It's not the same thing...”

“You rushing to rescue because you're angry with some dodgy character without thinking twice of what they might do to you? What if he'd had a gun, Ri?”

“I didn't go to fight and Dale was there-” 

“And what if they'd hurt you? Both of you, over a fight you started? What if you hadn't been able to manage the mare? You can't take these kind of risks, Riley! They're not yours to take, you know what it would do to the rest of us if anything happened to you?”

That was the end of Riley’s self control. Flynn heard his breath catch and waited a moment, rubbing his back.

“You have to learn to stop and think. If you have a problem you call one of us, you ask for help, you do something to keep yourself safe. Do you understand me?”

The sound he got was in the general region of yes and Flynn didn’t wait any longer. He took a firm hold of Riley’s hip, a grip on the lexan paddle handle and brought the flat of the transparent paddle sharply down across Riley’s bare bottom. He several times had to catch Riley’s hand from flying back and Riley was twisting over his lap long before he was finished, sobbing hard.

It took him a while to quieten down afterwards. The stress had built up for several days, and it had been a very thorough paddling. Flynn pulled his shorts up when he reached the point of having cried himself out, helping him to his feet.


Riley went quietly and Flynn put the paddle away and sat down on the edge of the desk, watching Riley fidget and sniffle, sincerely hoping that this time the message was strongly enough reinforced and that it sank in. He left it a good fifteen minutes before he said quietly,


Riley turned, red eyed and wet faced, and went straight to him, burying himself deep in Flynn’s arms.

“I’m sorry. Really I’m sorry.”

“I know.” Flynn rested his chin on top of Riley’s head, holding him tightly. “You’re going to have a lot of writing to do in the evenings this week. This doesn't happen again, Ri.”

“It won't.”

“I warn you, you'll be a whole lot sorrier if it does. I won't take these risks with you. I can't.”

Riley nodded against him, knowing how serious that promise was. “I promise.”

He said nothing more for a moment, then rather unsteadily lifted his head from Flynn’s chest.

“You can’t be mad at Dale. I didn’t give him any choice, he didn’t have time to do anything to stop me, he just-”

“Did what he could to help. I know.” Flynn finished for him.

“He tried to talk me out of hiding Mia too.”

“Ri, you know we get this.” Flynn said gently. “Don’t you?”

Riley looked at him for a moment, very red eyed, then nodded and subsided back into his chest.

“Yeah. I do.”

“Then stop worrying and go get ready for bed.”

Riley didn’t respond or let go for a moment and Flynn tightened his arms, kissing his cheek and then his forehead, a hard and possessive kiss.  

“It’s all right halfpint. Go on, I'll be up in a minute.”


Dale took the keys and went out to lock up when they finished cleaning up after dinner. The yard in the dark was a peaceful place, crisp and cold and the quiet broken only by the occasional snort and step of a horse in the corral. Dale locked the barn and the sheds, checked the gate out into the home pasture, and walked slowly across to the corral. The gate was secure, Hammer lifted his head and came to the fence and Dale climbed up to sit on the top bar to rub his neck. It was at times like this, despite a sincerely insane day, despite a lot of different surface emotions that flitted in and out like clouds across the sky, he really understood what it was to be happy.

It was still new to be accountable, not to clients for the tactical decisions he’d taken or the outcomes that resulted, but to people he loved for his safety, for his intentions, for breaches of an agreed code between them. He had felt that acutely sitting at the table after Riley and Flynn left, not at all sure whether or not he had breached that code, or how to ask. It had taken a minute and help from Paul to realise that Jasper was teasing him. And that he knew by himself just where those lines were and what they meant. There was no expectation that he would betray Riley’s confidences to get him into trouble. Withholding as a definition had nothing to do with Riley’s keeping mustangs out of sight.

You understand this perfectly well. You just lose the confidence to trust yourself to know.

And not explaining about this morning’s – weather – in the clearing is withholding, it’s bugging the hell out of you which makes it with holding, and you know it does.

At the top of the hay pasture that led up towards the tops, a flash of movement caught his eye. Three horsemen, nothing more than shadows, poised in front of the trees. The outline of their heads rose up into the silhouette of feathers in their hair, then the shadows moved and there was nothing more than trees on the brow of Mustang Hill.


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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