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Book 3 of the Falls Chance Ranch Series

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Shenanigan's Overlook



Shenanigan's Overlook


“We’ll need to go into Cheyenne to do the Christmas shopping on Monday.” Paul said at breakfast on Saturday morning in late November.

Riley dropped his head down on the table with a thud and a groan that surprised Dale, and Flynn lowered his fork, giving Paul a long, hard stare. Paul ignored them both, continuing to butter his toast. “I want to leave by seven am, and we won’t be back until dinner time, so the stock needs either bringing down close enough to feed before breakfast or after dark, or giving extra rations on Sunday.”

"I've got too much to do, I can just go into Jackson one afternoon and Christmas shop there-" Riley began pitifully.

"I'll take you into Jackson. That's fine, I can deal with Jackson." Flynn interrupted.

Jasper caught Dale’s eye and his own were twinkling although his face was straight. Paul lowered his toast, giving Flynn a very clear look. "I only ask this of you once a year, and you will not die doing it. We are all going to Cheyenne, at seven am, looking civilised."



It was the only morning in Dale's memory where Paul laid out exactly what he wanted Dale to wear. He did the exact same for Riley, who also came down to breakfast unusually tidy in a proper shirt instead of a polo, and slacks instead of jeans. Jasper forwent jeans, and he looked extremely good in chinos; something that occupied quite a lot of Dale's attention through breakfast, as did Paul in a jacket which made him somehow look very different to usual. Flynn wore his usual faded jeans and riding boots with a comment if you dare air towards Paul, and he drove the four hours to Cheyenne, putting the four by four in the crowded parking lot of the Frontier Mall, having refused point blank to park in the nearest lot on the grounds that it was free parking only if you purchased a 99 cent burger at the burger joint, which was blackmail.

“I warned you.” Paul said under his breath to Dale. Flynn levelled an accusing finger at the sign nearest their parking spot which was identifying the area as yellow zone C.

“I don’t need that either. I can remember where I parked the damn car all by myself.”

“And if he acquires a head injury and amnesia while shopping he’ll steal someone else’s car rather than admit it.” Paul got out of the car, taking note of the colour and number. “That way. Yes, we are all going together Riley, no one is disappearing anywhere.”

This was Dale's second trip to Cheyenne, and to him the mall looked very like shopping malls he'd encountered in every major city he had worked in. There were shops, there were crowds, there was noise, and Dale's main aim had always been to get as far away from it as possible. The whole place was plastered with tinsel and bright and shiny Christmas decorations, stuffed to the brim with people, and was loud, hot, very busy and filled with cheery Christmas music.

"This is going to be horrendous." Riley said grimly as they reached the front doors.

Paul slipped a hand through Dale's arm, squeezing it reassuringly.

"Stop it."

"The whole reason I hate Richard Gere is in all his films, there he is enjoying shopping." Riley looked darkly at a display of a group of singing mechanical elves as he passed them, hands dug deep in his pockets. "Who enjoys shopping? Just get out the damn list and let's get it done."

"We are not going to go about this like a SWAT team." Paul informed him, taking a notebook from his pocket. Riley sighed.

"SWAT team shopping is what it's all about. You go in, you grab and you run. It's all over in minutes.""Having grabbed the first thing you see, whether it's relevant or not."

"Did you know in a survey, the rate of blood pressure and heart rate in men being forced to shop was the same as in fighter pilots going into combat?"

"Dale, stop showing him how to use the internet." Paul said without looking up from his list.

"Shopping comes from prehistoric times," Riley argued. "I read an article on this, it's hunting. Prehistoric men shopped by spotting a yak and whomping it with a club, and dragging it straight home. Job done. They didn't wander round comparing yaks and drinking coffee and falling over fricking strollers. I'm a yak-whomper, it's genetic."

"Not here you're not." Paul folded the list, turning to find Flynn. "You need jeans, Riley needs jeans, go whomp the denim department in Sears over there. I'll take Dale and we'll meet you back here in an hour."

"What's going to take an hour about getting a pair of jeans?" Flynn demanded. "Ten minutes at most!"

"Not if you try them on, and not with these queues." Paul said patiently. "And you need to get at least three pairs each."

"There is nothing wrong with worn jeans, they're comfortable."

"There's worn and there's unwearable and I am throwing unwearable ones out, so three pairs a piece at least." Paul said firmly. "Jas?"

"I'll take this turn by myself." Jasper said calmly. "See you in an hour."

"It will not take an hour." Flynn said, heading towards Sears with Riley, both of them dodging through the crowds.

Paul put the notebook back in his pocket, shaking his head at Dale.

"Every year I think it would be easier to come alone and save the hassle. I just buy Flynn summer clothes without involving him and put them straight in his wardrobe, because there's no way I'll convince him that shops sell for the coming season and not the current one. If he can't wear it tomorrow he thinks he doesn't need it. In here hon, this is a good place to look for things for Gerry and Ash."

"How complicated is this going to be?" Dale asked a little warily, holding the door for him. Paul gave him a reassuring look, turning the notebook for him to see.

"Not bad. I shop for the family, a lot of whom will drop in at some point over the holiday, either Christmas or New Year. I promise it will not be scary. And we usually shop for each other while we're here, although some of us find that easier than others."

Paul's tone gave away who, and Dale smiled.

"I see."

Paul paused in front of a rack of gloves and scarves, looking down the line. "We keep it very simple between ourselves anyway, but I warn you now honey, Flynn and Riley would rather climb the Eiger for you in a g string than have to work out what to buy you as a Christmas gift. They want clear objectives, like a military mission, and they're both fixers. In their heads, finding a gift is like being asked for a solution without being told the problem, which is why their choice of gifts can be extremely strange, and they also can't go into shopping gear until the item is actually needed, like at five pm on Christmas Eve. They love you dearly, but they can't shop. What?"

Dale realised he stifled a smile. He was still used to thinking rather than saying this kind of thing out loud and sharing it.

"I've got every sympathy. My P.A. always dealt with this kind of thing, and she kept calendars because I was clueless."

"And busy." Paul agreed. “What did you used to do about Christmas when you were working?”

“We didn’t really take a whole lot of notice.” Dale said apologetically. “The offices were decorated and there were office parties and what not-”

“Which you were polite at and escaped as quick as possible?” Paul said wryly. “And most people at that level are single anyway for obvious reasons, yes, I thought so. What are you sending your mother? Yes, you are sending something to your mother, it's Christmas."

"You make Flynn send something to his family?" Dale demanded, startled. Paul gave him a look, keeping hold of his arm as they passed the scrum by the perfume counter.

"No, but then Flynn is fairly sure I wouldn't spank him."

Dale grinned and Paul returned the smile, steering him past another display of singing penguins.

"I hope Sears is quieter, he’ll be hating every minute of this – what would your mother like?"

"......I have no idea." Dale admitted. "I don't really know anything about what she likes, I never-"

"At all?" Paul asked. Dale shrugged, rather helplessly.

"I know A.N.Z. used to send out the corporate hampers to staff and associates from a list which...."

"Your P.A. wrote?" Paul finished for him. "I see. Well wine is pretty inoffensive. Or champagne. We can arrange that without much difficulty."

He went rapidly through the store with a methodical approach that Dale recognised and appreciated. Organisation was Paul's major forte, and Dale had enough expertise himself to admire genius when he saw it. He further was the one member of the family who knew exactly what gifts were needed, for whom, to be posted when and how, and it appeared to be a job the other three were very happy to leave in his hands.

Another born organiser himself, Dale found he had a rapid memory for items, places and prices, and once he got the idea of what Paul was doing, they made a rather effective team. Within forty minutes Paul had several bags of purchases and pocketed the notebook, and they headed back to the doorway of Sears where Flynn was looking grim and Riley was sitting cross legged on the ground, oblivious to the hundreds of people around him.

"Jeans." Paul said, holding out a hand. Flynn handed him the bags and Paul went rapidly through them, checking the labels.

"They are the right length and the right size, I did check." Riley said from the floor. "Since if you send me back to change those and queue again, I will hang myself."

"I don't know why they have to make it this difficult." Flynn said grimly, looking back at Sears where people were queuing fifteen deep at each till. "I just want the same pair of jeans they sold me last time. Why do there have to be so many brands and departments and so many levels and shops? Look at this place."

"It's a mall, all malls look like this." Paul said patiently as Jasper edged through the crowd towards them. "Riley, you need riding boots, Jasper make sure they're decent ones-"

"I do not require and will not at any time in the future require benches, potted palms or kiosks selling frozen yoghurt." Flynn said darkly. "Just room to walk is all. Nor 'food courts'. There will never be anything I need to buy that will require being here long enough to need to eat. And if I’m expected to walk and queue behind people unable to make decisions, I want the right to use a rope and a gun."

"I'm not going near the shoe department, we'll be there hours!" Riley protested.

"Riding boots." Paul told him. "And not the cowboy stores, the actual proper boots. Flynn, you and Dale go and do what you want to do, I'll see you back here in an hour."

"What I want," Flynn said pointedly, "Is no more than three stores, in a line, with a car park in the same time zone. Those stores should sort out between themselves to stock everything we'll ever need. And when I've finally found something worth buying, I want someone still alive and metabolising behind a till. That shouldn't be a lot to ask. Give me a list for pete’s sake, let’s get what you need and get out of here. There’s five of us, this should take half an hour."

“I’m not giving you a list, I’m afraid of what you’d do with it.” Paul said frankly. “I’ve tried that. You’ll come back breathing fire with a hundred and one reasons why you’re not touching or paying for any of the items I asked you to get.”

“Because they’re pointless and over priced.”

“Dale, do something with him before I crown him.” Paul warned.

Riley, who had been listening to this and grinning with his hands dug in his pockets, laughed, and Flynn barged him with one shoulder which made him laugh even more.

It was at about that point that Dale realised he was enjoying himself.




They ate a late and rather rowdy lunch in an over decorated Mexican restaurant and reached home shortly after dark, and spent some minutes transferring parcels and bags from the car to the kitchen table.

“I’ll sort them out and put them away, get off.” Paul told Flynn, slapping his hand away from one of the bags. “Let you in there and I’ll get another three hour rant on why it wasn’t worth the money and shouldn’t be sold anyway. Go look at your horses.”

Flynn slid both arms around Paul’s waist from behind, murmuring something into his ear with a glimmer of an extremely wicked grin, and Paul laughed, but put a hand back to swat what of Flynn he could reach.

“No. Get off, you’ve been horrible beyond belief all day.”

“So don’t make me shop.”

“You’ll be lucky if I feed you tonight. Go away.”Flynn nipped his neck, kissed him and let him go, heading out into the yard with Jasper. Paul handed several bags to Riley.

“Jeans, winter clothes, books, put those away for me hon. If you’re not sure whose are whose then put them on my bed and I’ll sort them out. Dale, you’re going to need to track down an address for your mother and her family and we’ll make a phone or computer order for some wine. Do you have one to hand?”

Dale glanced at his watch, thinking through possibilities.

“I know someone who will. Can I have the phone?”

“You’ve been less of a nightmare than anyone else in this house today, you can have anything you want.” Paul took the phone out of the cupboard and handed it to him, dropping a kiss on his cheek. “Don’t forget the zip code, or post code, or whatever they call it in the UK.”

Dale took the phone into the study and shut the door, taking a seat at the desk. It was nearly seven pm but that would make no difference; he knew the A.N.Z. hours and out of hours numbers, and the phone was answered almost immediately.

“Caroline Mayhew.”

“Caroline it’s-” Dale began and Caroline interrupted him with delight in her voice.

“Mr Aden! What can I do for you?"

"It's not work related." Dale sat back in the chair, warmed by her tone. "I'm struggling and I need bailing out, can you help? Do you have any addresses on record for my mother?"

"Yes sir, you're listed with the Execs and Mr Banks made it clear you still were – I forwarded the usual family hamper on your behalf when I sent out the others. I hope that was ok?"

"You're a total star." Dale said with relief, sinking back in the chair. "Yes, that's perfect. You'd better email me the address and contact details so I have them on record.”

“Straight away sir. Is there anything more I can help you with?”

It wasn’t the polite question she asked of clients at the end of calls; this was the woman who had been organising the practical parts of his life for some years and it had only been in the past few months since Paul started making him stand on his own feet and do such things for himself that Dale realised how much she had done and how much he’d been able to hand over to her and forget about it.

“Yes.” He said frankly. “Caro would you know how to go about speaking to Fortnum and Masons in London and discussing orders with them? I know it's going to be a pain getting anything flown out, but see what they'll offer. This is what I'm after, and this is for where."

The following negotiations took some time, and Caroline took the notes with her usual efficiency, finishing with a rapid summary of their discussion.

"Are you quite sure about the alcohol, sir?" she said at last. "The matching wines are very usual?"

"Very." Dale said with conviction. "Just the things discussed."



*


Riley had introduced him to the four seasons Wyoming residents lived by: early winter, mid-winter, late winter, and damn-fer-sure winter. In England where Dale had grown up, there had been brief and shallow snowfalls every few years, lasting a couple of days and grinding the country to a halt as it was unused to any severe weather other than rain. In the cities where he’d worked, highways had stayed clear and offices were well insulated and heated and snow falls had impinged very little on him.

Here there was SNOW.

It had begun shortly before Thanksgiving and while at first there were often light snowfalls dusting the grass, in early December one night the snow started to fall – and went on falling, steadily, with a purposefulness that Dale had never seen before. That first evening there had been a gentleness to it that had been enchanting. Dale had stood for a while in the yard in the dark watching the large flakes whirl against the lights of the house with the fields white in all directions around him, and thought he’d never seen anything so beautiful. By two am there was a snow storm going on around the house with winds so loud it woke them, and by morning Dale fully understood why the cattle and sheep herds were on the sheltered pastures right by the ranch. The big three sided shelter in the paddock on the west side of the ranch that stood unused and empty through the summer was where the riding horses and the shire horses now resided, protected from the winds, and the hay carefully accumulated through the year was now needed as food as the stock and the horses alike pawed aside snow to reach what frozen grass they could. There was a song Riley was given to singing to the tune of Oh Susanna as he dressed or as he worked in the yard.

          Oh it's winter in Wyoming and the gentle breezes blow
          Seventy miles an hour at twenty-five below 

          Oh, how I love Wyoming when the snow's up to your butt 
          You take a breath of winter and your nose gets frozen shut 
          Yes, the weather here is wonderful so 
          I'll guess I'll hang around 
          I could never leave Wyoming 'cause I'm frozen to the ground.

Their working days were spent shifting hay to keep the herds fed, keeping their water supply unfrozen, ensuring shelter, and continuing the daily check for injured or sick animals or those not coping well with the snow, although the stock in general seemed stoically acclimatized. Up on the tops, Bandit and his herd had grown their thick, shaggy winter coats, and Dale saw Bandit eat and drink alongside the rather forlorn foals, showing them how to paw aside snow to find grass, or break ice to drink at the banks of the river. When the snowstorms blew and the temperatures plummeted, the stallion brought the herd down the hills and into the yard, and the riding horses were stabled to allow the mares and foals to have the shelter in the west paddock, where they pressed close together for warmth and where the gate was left open since as soon as the danger was past Bandit would move his herd on again. The riding horses, raised in Bandit’s herd and having lived the first year of their lives up on the tops with the mares, had no fears of snow or crossing where at times they sank to their hocks in snow and had to move in bounds. They picked their way between the drifts and dragged the hay bales up to the shelter of the edge of the woods where feeding stations were set up for the herd to come to, where the trees sheltered the hay from getting too wet or snowed over.

At home, the fire in the family room stayed lit all the time, and Dale who had never lived in a stone built house before, came to realise how the stones themselves warmed and held the heat. The house was never cold and in this weather they worked shorter days, coming home earlier as it grew dark and spending a little more time in the house together . Out on the road beyond the ranch, the snowploughs had thrown snow up in high banks six or seven feet high, and a regular yard chore became to shovel the yard clear in the main areas they needed to walk and to work, keeping the barn and stable doorways clear, although the drifts stood against the walls untouched, almost up to the stable roof itself.


The other side effect of the snow was that Flynn became far more vigilant about who went where, did what, and what time they came home by. Paul, late home from Jackson where he’d been to do some shopping, received an interrogation over dinner which he calmly refused to co operate with as he always did when Flynn tried to tell him off. Riley and Dale didn’t have that recourse.

“It’s snow.” Riley argued several times when Flynn objected to him going alone to do whatever work he had in mind, “I know about snow, it’s only frozen water. No one’s going to turn to a pumpkin just because it gets dark when they’re out in snow.”

“You won’t turn into a pumpkin,” Flynn assured him. “If you manage to make it home without freezing to death because the temperature’s plummeted, or breaking your neck on ice, I’ll paddle you until you can’t sit down until the thaw.”

“Which he means,” Riley complained to Dale when they were washing up and out of Flynn’s earshot. “Last year he caught me climbing up on the falls which is stunning when it freezes, all dripping ice, and he was mean enough to actually do it right there, in the snow. I thought he was supposed to be worried about me freezing. Don’t ever get yourself spanked when you’re that cold. It’s as bad as being wet, it stings like all hell.”

Apart from a very pleasant evening around the fire where Paul spread out Christmas cards addressed to family members and they all shared them around the coffee table in front of the fire, adding their personal messages and signing, and the vast gathering of cards, letters and messages that began to flood the mail and which Paul put up on strings in the family room, there wasn’t much more mention of Christmas until Christmas Eve morning, when after breakfast Jasper got up and looked invitingly at Riley and Dale.

“Well? Are you coming to help pick a tree?”

They walked up to the snowy woods and after some deliberation from Riley, cut down a fir tree, which they towed home with them with ropes among excited dogs, and which was then brushed free of snow, potted and stood in the family room. It was not a modestly sized one. By the time they’d manhandled it through the front door and into the family room which took a lot of laughing and pine needles dropped everywhere, it’s tip nearly brushed the ceiling and Dale estimated it as about nine foot high.

“We usually decorate it in the evening on Christmas Eve,” Paul told him, stopping him picking up pine needles. “Gerry and Ash should be here by dinner time. I’ll get the decorations out and vacuum in here, don’t worry.”

They did the usual stock work, the work that had to be done whatever the weather every day, and in the afternoon Dale rode out with Riley to the edge of the pasture by the woods where some of the fence hopper sheep had rolled down a stretch of the wire fence. It took time to dig out and stabilise the damaged fence post and then to re wire the fence, and it was nearly four pm when it was done.

“That warmed me up.” Riley said cheerfully, unbuttoning his jacket.

Dale glanced at his watch as he put the wire clippers and mallet away in Hammer’s saddle back.

“It’s still bright sun out here but nothing's melting. I’ve never seen anywhere so cold it can bright without thawing.”

Riley stooped, feeling around in the foot and a half of snow they walked in with his gloved hands.

“It’s thawed a little. Getting wetter. Stickier.”

He straightened up with a ball of snow in his hands and Dale jumped, startled as it impacted firmly on his shoulder.



Riley grinned at him and shook his head, stooping to pick up and mould another one.

“Perfect for snowballs.”

Dale, prepared, caught this one like a cricket ball and tossed it in his hand for a moment, aware that Riley’s grin had become wary, and he laughed when Dale bowled it back, turning his back so it caught his shoulders, and quickly gathering up snow for another one. Dale scooped up an arm full of snow and slipped into the woods, quietly nipping behind a tree.

He could hear Riley coming up the path, not wasting time on being quiet, and after a brief check of his route, Dale climbed the tree, settling on a branch that overlooked the path below and taking aim. Riley jumped and looked around as the first snowball caught him.

“Hey! Watch the head!”

Dale grinned, leaning out of sight as Riley turned. The second snowball caught him square on the chest and Riley glanced up and spotted him, gathering up more snow.

“Nice move. For a rookie. Kind of a sitting target aren’t you?”

He hefted a snowball, grinning, and Dale ducked behind the tree as it splatted against the trunk, leaned over and shook the branch which drenched Riley in a shower of snow. Riley shook it out of his hat and peeled off and dropped his coat which now held more snow than defended against it, and launched a hail of snowballs from the ground until in self defence Dale slid down from his perch and took off through the woods. Riley chased him, crashing through the trees and bushes and sending birds erupting indignantly up out of the trees in all directions. They were both breathless with laughing by the time Riley chased him out of the woodland where he finally lost his footing and rolled down the bank in deep, soft snow.

Riley stopped at the top of the slope and laughed at the expression on Dale’s face, sitting down at the top of the hill. Dale finally came to a stop and flopped back in the snow. Eventually when he had the breath he crawled back to Riley and sat next to him.

“You need your coat. Hadn’t we better find it?”

“It’s somewhere in the woods near the tree you climbed.”

“Come on then.” Dale got up and put a hand down to pull Riley up. Riley trudged with him up the snow bank into the trees, rubbing his arms.

“Now it’s not so warm.”

“No, but it’s pretty.” Dale said wholeheartedly.

Actually it was beautiful. The trees and branches held a crisp drenching of snow outlining their branches and on the leaves of the ever green bushes, and the paths were shallowly covered in snow and unmarked by any footprints other than animals and their own. No one walked the ranch but the people that lived here, there were miles of untracked snow in all directions and the woods were quiet.

It took them a while to find Riley’s coat, which they spotted eventually by systematically searching the paths. Riley shook it out and pulled it on, and they walked out of the other side of the woods to where the horses were patiently grazing on the more sheltered grass on the fringe of the woods. Riley kicked at a drift almost as high as him against the side of a tree.

“That must be at least five foot.”

“I used to see snow sculptures in New York.” Dale said, thinking about it. “Nothing like this amount of snow, but some amazing art work.”

“Snow sculptures? Like the ice ones?”

“Yes. There were some being made at a conference dinner I was sent to once.”

“I’ve made snowmen but I’ve never sculpted.”

“I saw that done by kids at school- I meant snow men?” Warned by the expression on Riley’s face, Dale stopped. “What?"

’Saw that done’?” Riley repeated. “You’ve never in your life built a snowman?”

“There isn’t too much snow in the UK?” Dale said defensively. Riley rolled a snowball and put it firmly into his hand.

“Like this. Follow me.”

They had two snowmen, both over six foot tall, and both rapidly developing more and more complicated facial and physical characteristics when Dale heard the sound of a horse picking over the snow and looked up, realising the pink sky was rapidly turning an ominous yellow grey and Flynn was leaning on one elbow on his saddle bow, watching them from under the brow of his Stetson. Riley turned to see what he was looking at, and winced. Flynn tipped the brow of his hat back.

“Would you two know what time it is?”

“I name this snowman,” Riley said, turning back to his snowman. “Bartholomew Oliver Shenanigans. Dale?”

Dale glanced at his watch, unable to help it.

“.......ten to five?”

“Lousy name.” Riley informed him. “I name yours Ignoramus Moveus Maximus so the poor bastard’s got some choice. We had to be back by five, we’re not that far from home and we’re not late, Flynn.”

“Look that way.” Flynn suggested, nodding towards the horizon. Riley looked up hill and Dale followed his gaze. The clouds were so low that way that they were impossible to separate them from the snowy ground.

“Oh.” Riley said less cheerfully.

“That’s right. Oh.” Flynn turned Leo, helping him pick his way over the snow. “That’s a snow storm and it’s not far away. Move your maximus right now.”




A car was in the yard and Riley nudged Snickers into a trot, left him in the yard and ran up the porch steps to the kitchen. Jasper came out of the barn and came over to take Snickers, and Flynn leaned over for Hammer’s bridle.

“It’s Ash and Gerry. I’ll see to Hammer, go and say hi.”

Dale slid down to the yard and followed Riley more slowly into the kitchen. Riley was hugging Gerry who was talking nineteen to the dozen, loudly as usual, and Ash put down the mug of tea he held, his face lighting up as he came to hug Dale.

“Hi! Merry Christmas, it’s good to see you!”

“How were the roads?” Riley demanded. Ash went to hug him, leaving Gerry to throw himself on Dale.

“Hey! Ew you’re freezing.”

“The roads weren’t bad, we took the flight out to Jackson so we had a much shorter drive. The money’s worth the extra time and safety, I think Luath and Darcy are planning to do the same.”

“They’re coming?”

Paul nodded. “Luath called this afternoon to say they were at the airport and on second thoughts they didn’t want to stay in New York after all.”

“Er, wouldn’t it be a good idea to take a shower? Quick?” Ash suggested, rubbing Riley’s shoulder. Riley caught Ash’s raised eyebrows and hurriedly took Dale’s arm.

“It would. Thanks.”





By the time they were warm and in clean, dry clothes the crowd in the kitchen had moved to the living room. Flynn had obviously used the shower upstairs; his hair was damp and he was in a clean sweater and jeans. He put his mug of tea down at the sight of Dale and Riley, beckoning.

“You two, a word? Excuse us.”

Riley, who had promptly settled himself on the arm of the couch next to Paul so Paul put an arm around him, stole a mouthful of tea from Paul’s mug and gave Flynn the most appealing look Dale had yet seen him come up with.

“We weren’t late?”

“We can talk right here if you prefer?” Flynn offered. Riley pulled a horrible face and very unwillingly got up.

Flynn herded both of them into the study and shut the door, coming to lean against the edge of the desk.

“But we weren’t late!” Riley told him, “We were only messing around and we were less than ten minutes from the house-”

“Taking no notice whatever of a coming snowstorm.” Flynn pointed out. “If you get hit by a blizzard it makes no difference whether you’re ten minutes away or two minutes away, you still won't be able to see where you are or which way to go. You keep a look out, especially at the end of the day when it’s getting colder anyway.”

“There was no harm done and you’ve been going nuts since it snowed!” Riley pleaded.

“For good reason, this isn’t safe weather. It’s clear you both need reminding to keep your eyes open and think.” Flynn took a seat on the couch and held out a hand.

“Dale. Lose the jeans.”

“Flynn! It’s Christmas Eve!” Riley protested. “It’s illegal to do this on Christmas Eve and it was my fault anyway, I was the one who started chucking snowballs-”

“Dale, jeans please.” Flynn said before Riley could answer.

Aware of Riley watching, Dale did his best not to make a fuss by delaying over unbuttoning his jeans, and Flynn took his arm, turning Dale over his lap to slip his shorts down. Being watched went completely out of his head as soon as Flynn got started, with other very urgent priorities coming to mind, like breathing and trying to quit wriggling. The spanking was short, but it was very firm, and Dale was breathing carefully when Flynn helped him up and helped him to dress.

“Ri.”

“No.” Riley informed him. “Nothing happened, we weren’t late, it wasn’t even snowing-”

A gust of wind hit the window with a bang, interrupting him, as the yard disappeared in a haze of white.

“That was what you were taking no notice of.” Flynn said, indicating the window. “Now, Ri.
If I have to come get you, I’ll get a paddle too.”

“Mean.” Riley informed him, unwillingly unbuttoning his jeans.

He yelped a lot; Dale, backside burning under his jeans and unable not to pay attention, counted fifty good, hard swats before Flynn stopped and tapped his back.

“If I come looking for you again because the weather’s turning, I’d better find you aware and heading home fast.”

Riley muttered something in the region of yes sir, and Flynn let him up, steadying him as he got to his feet, and would have helped him sort his clothes out if Riley hadn’t stepped out of his reach and glared at him, massaging his rear.

Grinch.”

Flynn got up, not sounding repentant. “The weather doesn’t know it’s Christmas.”


It was a peculiar experience, decorating a Christmas tree in a noisy, cheerful crowd of people you loved, with an extremely warm and smarting butt. The others appeared to be deeply familiar with what went where and how, and Gerry, who had a surprisingly artistic touch, took the baubles and placed them with Jasper’s help while the others unpacked and handed them up. There were several carefully packed crates of glass decorations, some of which looked eighty or more years old and which Dale, kneeling on the hearth rug to handle them gently, suspected came from Philip’s family in Boston. Others were simple large cones and carved wood, some of which Dale recognised from the unmistakeable style and craftsmanship as Jasper’s, and others which weren’t.

“David’s,” Paul said when he saw Dale turning over a couple of carved wooden stars. “The boats are his too.”

Boats seemed too simple a name for the elegant little tall ships carved from wood, so small they fit in Dale’s palm and hung on a thread on the tree. Paul brought a tray in from the oven with cooling slices of oranges and cinnamon sticks, and hung those among the fir cones, filling the family room with the spicy scent.

“These are the streamers,” Riley said, digging them out of the bottom of one of the crates, “And your lights are in the other box, Ger.”

“Which I’ll get the extension cable for, do not fuse anything.” Ash ordered. Gerry grinned at him, digging bale after bale of outside Christmas lights from a crate.

“We only did that once, the first time we put them up. It took Philip a lot of sweet talking to get the electrician to sort out everything we fused.”

He took the armfuls of lights outside and Riley nodded at Dale, getting up to follow.

“Come on, you need to help with this.”

“Do not climb up on the roof.” Paul called after them. “And put gloves on!”

There was still a snowstorm whirling outside, not that Gerry or Riley paid much attention, and the porch was sheltered. Apparently the outside lights were wound around the porch rails and pillars. Thickly. Dale wound the strands he was handed, half an eye on the weight of snow and the heights of the drifts against the barn, although it was hard to see across the yard through the blasting snow. Riley paused near him, slipping one hand back to rub at his butt.

“I may just sit down in the snow for a while and try numbing it. I don’t believe he did that on Christmas Eve, that’s just mean. He’s a pest about snow, I don’t know what he thinks it’s going to do.”

“Kill you?” Dale suggested. Riley grimaced at him, winding more lights.

“If I could get up on the fricking roof without sliding off I’d wait up there with a shovel and drop a head full on him.”

“Too clumsy.” Dale said without thinking.

Riley paused and looked at him, ducking his head to avoid the snow flying in his face.

“.......go on?”

Dale looked again at the stable doorway across the yard with the high drifts, and stifled a grin before Gerry saw it and asked questions.

“I did some work once with a guy who specialised in building demolitions – dropping buildings by gravity inside their own footprint without damaging surrounding structures-”

“You can do that with snow?” Riley demanded under his breath, following his gaze to the doorway.

“I don’t see why not. If anything it’s easier. Snow structure is already inherently unstable.”





Christmas Eve evenings apparently had their own traditions in this household. With the tree decorated and with wrapped gifts brought downstairs to be piled around it, the lights blazing on the porch and the swoops of garlands hung inside the family room and around the fire place, Paul set and lit candles everywhere – on the coffee table, on the hearth, on the windowsills, on the porch, and Jasper put out the electric lights so the family room was lit only by the fire and candlelight. Instead of a sit down meal at the table, they set out a finger food meal on the coffee table in the family room and sat on the couches, or in Riley and Jasper’s case on the floor in front of the fire, and ate and talked, until Paul found on the radio the BBC World Service broadcasting the Carols from Kings service, and they sat listening to the slightly crackling choir in England, singing the same last advent service they’d sung in a Cambridge cathedral for hundreds of years on Christmas Eve night. It was the sound of Dale’s childhood, from the first lone child’s voice singing ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ to the Sussex carol and the Boar’s Head carol. Half way through the Boars Head carol a car was heard in the yard and Gerry erupted to his feet.

“That’s Darcy! They’ve taken their time from Jackson!”

The snow was falling much more gently outside, and Darcy ran up the steps to hug Gerry and to move on through the crowd, shivering.

“Hi! We were caught in the snowstorm, we’ve been driving at about ten miles an hour all the way.”

“We met some poor delivery guy back at the road,” Luath called, opening the boot. “So we took his load and let the man go home, although it took some work to make enough room in the car. Fortnum and Mason box for you, Dale?”

Jasper, Flynn and Ash came to help Luath with suitcases and boxes, some of which were taken upstairs, and the huge wooden packing crate with Fortnum and Mason stamped on the side was brought into the living room and put on the rug in front of the fire.

“What is Fortnum anyway?” Riley demanded, bringing a knife to prise up the nails holding the box down. “Where’s this been flown from?”

“London.” Paul said, tearing off the attached letter to open it. “It’s an extremely famous grocer and department store in London-”

He stopped, reading the letter, then leaned over to put an arm around Dale’s neck and kiss him, handing the letter over to Flynn.

The message was printed and simple.

          To Riley, Jasper, Paul and Flynn,
          
               With all my love. 

                     Always, Dale.
It took some time to unpack the crate.


The outer wooden crate was stuffed with straw and the inner crate opened on several gift wrapped packages which were put under the tree with the others, a small box of Christmas decorations which Riley promptly added to the tree, and a large wicker hamper. The wicker hamper contained fresh tea, a York ham, a side of Scots salmon and a whole stilton and a large Christmas pudding, in amongst numerous jars of pate, pickles, jams and tins of biscuits and chocolate.

“Because there’s no food anywhere in the states.” Riley said cheerfully, opening a packet of improbable looking chocolates. “Oh good grief that’s coffee in that box. That’s actual caffeinated coffee, call the police.”

“There’s about enough for one good pot to go around and that’s it,” Ash said reassuringly, “I don’t think that’ll do anyone any damage. Paul, you shouldn’t need to cook again until New Year.”

“I think that was probably the idea?” Paul said, turning over the York Ham which was enormous. “Scotch eggs, pork pies – I’ve read about the scotch eggs but I’ve never seen one. I do know about the marzipan and icing Christmas cake and the mince pies, I used to make those for David. What’s that?”

“Holly.” Jasper said, unwrapping the package. “Still with berries on it. This must have flown out last night, it’s amazingly fresh.”

They put the holly up on the hearth and on the shelves around the new black and white photographs, and stuffed the larder with the contents of the box, and after that Paul took out a bottle of cider and mulled it, and they drank it around the fire and carried on talking, since apparently on Christmas Eve the household always stayed up until the clock struck midnight.

Gerry curled up on one couch with Ash and with his glass without the faintest trace of self consciousness, and Riley settled with Paul on the other. Darcy sat on the floor against Luath’s legs, and Flynn, stepping over Jasper who still lay on the rug by the fire, sat down in his usual armchair and pulled Dale down off the arm of it into his lap.



*


The snow had stopped outside shortly after one am when Riley very softly shut the kitchen door on the house. It had taken a while to wait for Flynn to fall asleep, and to slip away without disturbing him; Dale thought the unfamiliar cider had probably helped. They still moved very softly to the stable doorway. One sheep with a healing cut in its foreleg and a cow with her calf were the sole occupants of the stable, and watched with interest as Dale unlocked and opened the door and surveyed the structure. And then, very quietly instructing Riley, closed and locked the door again and began to compact and build the snow structure around the door frame.

In the yard lit by Gerry’s explosion of Christmas lights on the porch, moving softly, it took perhaps half an hour to construct. Dale built on the snow banks coming down from the slightly sloping arch facade above the doorway and connected them to the drifts against the walls, building out and to the sides, so that at a glance the doorway appeared to be only surrounded by snow on the roof and drifts to the side. With string from the tool shed and kindling sticks from the box on the porch, Dale settled the sticks well into the structure walls low down, tied string around them and ran the string up through the snow to the door handle, covering the traces with snow. One good yank on the door handle, the lower structures would be instantly pulled free, and as the entire heap of snow over and around the door now rested on those lower structures, the snow would collapse inward and downward in the doorway.

Riley stepped back to survey the work when they finished, brushing his gloves off, and gave Dale a grin.

“I can’t wait.”

“You’ll have to make sure Jas doesn’t go in there first in the morning?” Dale warned and Riley snorted.

“No problem.”

They padded back over the deep snow to the porch and the kitchen door, where Dale paused, hit by another thought, and Riley looked at him hopefully.

“What?”

There had never at any point in Dale’s life, been this same delicious feeling of being about ten years old and abandoning responsibility entirely. Dale stooped to gather snow off the steps in armfuls, nodding to Riley.

“Get some water.”


*


The family always got up late on Christmas morning, and the first meal of the day would be a brunch in the kitchen before whoever was at home rode out to help with the stock work that had to be done whatever the day and whatever the weather. The afternoon, Dale understood from Riley, was spent however people wanted; on walks, on riding, or with a drive out to the hot springs which Riley assured him was at its most attractive in the snow and which Dale was very willing to try; and they would have a traditional Christmas dinner in the evening and open gifts together afterwards.

It was radically different from every other Christmas that Dale ever remembered. There had been quiet Christmas dinners at his schools, and some more stilted visits to his mother’s beautifully decorated house where he was polite to guests and stayed mostly out of the way. Once he was working, there had been somewhere to hide and something to lose himself in; he had often worked through Christmas day using it as a time to catch up and to use the gym, enjoying the peace of everyone else in the city being occupied and at home. ‘Enjoyed’ was perhaps the wrong word. There had been a sterile kind of respite to it; it was nothing like the reality of being here, being with the others, being vigorously wanted and with people who showed real pleasure in your presence as if you belonged to them. And a kid kind of excitement about Christmas Dale hadn’t felt since he was about ten.

Riley’s simple excitement and pleasure in the hamper last night had been great fun in itself, but Dale still flushed at the memory of what Paul said to him when he caught him alone on the landing as they got ready for bed; Paul who fully understood what it meant and had absolutely no reservations about saying so, or openly telling him how much he appreciated the thoughtfulness. Flynn too, who loved Paul and appreciated a gesture towards Paul on Paul’s behalf as much if not more than he would have done towards himself, had been pretty clear in his approval. And he was up.

Dale woke fully, rolled over in bed and sat up, realising Flynn’s clothes were gone. He could hear Flynn in the shower, talking to Paul in the bathroom, and Dale hurriedly dodged along the landing too quietly from them to hear him, and slipped into Riley’s room, shaking Riley’s shoulder until Riley rolled over and looked at him blearily.

“What?”

“They’re up.”

“Damn!”

Riley’s eyes cleared and he grabbed for a sweatshirt, scrambling out of bed to wait with Dale by the door. They heard Paul start downstairs first, Flynn following, and waited until they were clear of the stairs before they cautiously followed, Riley swiftly checking Jasper’s room, and Dale heard him say good morning before he left.

“Jas is just getting up.” Riley murmured to Dale, following him downstairs. “Thank goodness. Must be the cider, he’s usually up at the first crack of dawn. I meant to go get in with him and keep him busy this morning but I didn’t wake up. Luthe and Darcy’s doors are still shut, I don’t know about-”

Ash and Gerry, still pyjamaed, were drinking tea in front of the newly re made and re lit family room fire, and Gerry grinned at them.

“Good morning. We’re still on work schedules, we were awake at dawn. We tried not to wake any-”

“Oh.” Paul’s voice said in surprise from the kitchen. Riley collapsed with laughter, took a breath and followed Dale to the kitchen, Gerry and Ash following.

The kitchen door had opened. It opened beautifully. However it opened into a sparkling box of snow. That part of it Dale had expected. What he hadn’t expected were several beautifully carved windows in each face of the box – not just squares but glittering lattices – that gave views out into the yard, but no exit. Flynn put out a finger and poked, and discovered it was iced solid.

Riley and Gerry burst out laughing, and Riley looked at Dale, eyebrows raised.

Did you do that?

I knew nothing about it!


Dale glanced back at Ash and Gerry and behind them Jasper, who caught his eye and winked, straight faced.


Flynn shook his head.

“Ri, get dressed, find a hacksaw, and cut a door in this please. I’ll use the front door until then.”

“Why me?” Riley demanded, still laughing. “There’s nine people in this house!”

“Because you’re finding it funniest.”

Flynn passed them and went out of the front door, shouldering into his coat. Riley grabbed Gerry’s arm and pulled him, and he and Dale headed into the study where the window overlooked the yard. Flynn, still zipping his jacket, walked across the yard to the stable door as he did every morning to check the stock there and then the stock in the corral, and Riley yelped with delight as Flynn unlocked and gave the door the usual brisk pull.

He was instantly drenched with several feet of snow.





Merry Christmas!

Copyright Ranger and Rolf December 23rd 2009

2 comments:

firehead30 said...

You know, Flynn really did deserve all of that snow...wonder what Dale and Riley are up to this year *ponders and wonders and hmmmmm?*

Ranger said...

Wait and see ;)

~*~

It's funny how life turns out

The odds of faith in the face of doubt

Camera one closes in

The soundtrack starts

The scene begins.

You're playing you now.

~Josh Jopling Group

~*~