Thursday, December 27, 2018

Oregon Way


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Oregon Way





19th December



The first explosion shook the heavy rows of pipes that surrounded the machinery on both sides. It burst one outwards in a jet of water hard enough that it was only by grabbing the Japanese ambassador by the collar of his jacket and yanking him back that they both stayed on their feet. With a groan of steel giving way under pressure another pipe burst and a second explosion echoed behind them, lighting the machinery and the steel gantries above them with an ominous glow. Flynn had one hand hooked around one of the steel support struts and the other arm around the chest of the French Financial Advisory team leader, who was pale green as he fought to find his balance. Flynn’s eyes met Dale’s in a swift, grim, what the actual heck was that? The senior engineer abandoned the group, running back through the machine room towards the source of the explosion. The lights went out, there was a sputter of shorting out electrics in pitch darkness, and then emergency lighting strips began to glow overhead. A dull emergency siren began to moan and an electronic woman’s voice began to repeat with inappropriate normality, “Please evacuate this area immediately. Please evacuate this area immediately.”

“All right let’s go!” Jeremy Banks’ voice bellowed from the front, sharply enough to drown it out and before any of their clients and associated hangers on had time to panic. “Move, this way, now!”

His rugby field roar always worked to get men moving in the right direction whatever the context. There were thirty assorted diplomats, highly senior financiers, government advisors and their staff here, none of whom were used to anything more alarming than the occasional office fire drill, but they started to unfreeze. Dale lifted his own voice to second Banks, keeping his tone crisp and what Riley referred to as ‘iced to the balls’, which usually did its own share of smothering panic and keeping people focused.

“Gentlemen, follow the lights. Miss Keene, lead on please.”

Their young guide with the clipboard in her dampened suit, who was looking terrified, pulled herself together and began to splash fast after Banks. At the end of the underground room where their escape route lay, Dale saw a brief glimpse of a figure in a long, dark coat, his hair wild in the odd glow of the emergency lighting, his eyes intent and urgent. David.

Be careful.

Oh no kidding.

“Now!” Banks thundered somewhere in the gloom, “Hurry it up, let’s go! Christmas is coming faster than you!”

It hurried them, although they were wading in several inches of water now. The water was flooding the area quite fast, and the fact that it was warm water was not at all reassuring. The water here cooled the gas pipes, and as it lost pressure and ceased to do its job, this place became less safe by the second. Dale repeated a general precis of Banks’ orders in Japanese and then in French, steering the man he was holding up through the worst of flow. Flynn moved with him. Exactly as they often did in synchrony at opposite sides of the cattle herd at home, positioning themselves to gather the group before them and drive them forward, with authority and without causing panic. Flynn’s presence was calming and it was making the men in front of him move without hesitation. He’d been steadying them all day, as skilfully as he did with both men and stock, at times with a quiet social chat with one of them, and at others just using his stance at the side of meetings or around the coffee pots during the breaks.

There was another ominous metal groan and then a loud bang as another pipe blew. From the smell, this one was one of the gas pipes. The men began to run, despite several of them being of a very inappropriate age and level of fitness to be galloping around, never mind in semi darkness and water in the bowels of a steelworks. Metal shrapnel whanged off the walls and the pipes. A fresh spray of water burst out, hosing them down strongly enough that Dale had to grab again to keep one of the men on his feet. The young woman had torn off her high heels and was following Banks at a run up steel gantry steps. By Dale’s estimation they were only a short way from the nearest emergency doors to the surface. He paused to count the group at the first gantry corner, leaning over it to look first at the men ahead of them and ensure no one had been left behind, and then down into the well of the room below. The glow of fire was blazing in the distance. David was standing in the rushing water, hands in his pockets, and gave him a faint nod, although his expression was grim. Flynn’s hands gripped Dale’s arms from behind.

“Shift.”

It wasn’t a suggestion. Dale shifted, keeping his voice detachedly innocent. “So how is this looking now in comparison with Christmas shopping?”

Despite the smoke, fire and alarms, he caught one of Flynn’s swift, flashing grins shot at him as they sprinted up the gantry.

With most of the staff of the shipyard gathered at the emergency muster points while fire crews wrestled with their steelworks, there were several hundred people milling about in the misty chill coming off the river. The wet, shaken up members of this morning’s meeting were mostly sitting on crates and concrete bollards, looking much less interested in the deal at hand. On the plus side, they had also stopped fighting; fighting possibly being a bit of an understatement. The Japanese team were long term clients who Dale knew well, and were a highly experienced, practical and courteous group, who vigorously disliked anything they perceived as crass and then flatly refused to engage with it. The American team were equally well known to ANZ and were clients of Banks, and were experienced too. They were also forthright and loud, with several members who believed in an aggressive and ruthless approach to achieving goals that was excessive by ANZ standards. Possibly even by Atilla the Hun’s standards. While the French team….. were considerably out of their depth in terms of experience and unwilling to admit it or to accept advice, had several highly strung members with a gift for drama, needed an extremely firm hand, a much stronger grip on reality and in Dale’s opinion, would have benefitted from the guidance of a good paddle. The presence of the diplomats made it still more complicated.

Dale, positioning himself where he could keep the main players in clear sight and prevent any fresh battles breaking out between their more interesting participants, blinked as Flynn’s hand, with a handkerchief in it, pressed his forehead and Flynn’s other hand cupped the back of his head to hold him still. Dale pulled his hand far enough away to see the blood on the handkerchief, then let him press the handkerchief back to stop the bleeding. He hadn’t felt whatever had scratched him, most likely a piece of the flying pipe shrapnel, but the blood wasn’t much more than a few traces. A moment later Flynn lifted the handkerchief to check, then let Dale take it and mop the remainder off. Banks appeared, digging his hands into his pocket against the freezing cold.

“I just spoke to Michaelson. They got the gas and the water turned off. There’s a couple of injuries but only minor ones, thank God. There’s a fire still raging down there but everyone’s evacuated. They’ve no idea yet what caused the explosion.”

“It came from the rod and bar mill.” Dale folded the handkerchief precisely and pocketed it, reflecting on what he’d seen. “All we saw was the fallout from the concussion damage. Michaelson’s going to need to host emergency control in their admin block; I suggest we move back to the Bay hotel and use the conference room there to resume.”

Banks grimaced. “If there’s any point in resuming. The yard’s going to be tied up in health and safety committee hearings for months reviewing what just happened,”

“Akhiro texted agreement to the proposal back to his head office as we left the board room.” Dale turned far enough to ensure his voice didn’t travel beyond Flynn and Banks. Banks didn’t waste time demanding to know how he knew; it was perfectly possible to ascertain the most likely combinations of letters and words from finger movements over a defined grid, whatever the language it was being done in. “They’ve made the decision, they have no remaining problems with what they’ve got and we’re done here. They just haven’t officially said so yet.”

Largely because that was how the dignified, reserved Akhiro expressed his extreme displeasure at the behaviour of the American chief exec and the foot stomping of the entire French team from Argeles Incorporated. Who more or less did it in close formation.

“Damnit.” Banks said wearily. “I know Akhiro’s got a point but I don’t really want to spend another six hours here playing politics because he doesn’t like their manners. And there is no way the Argeles team aren’t going to use this to push like hell to reopen negotiations on the grounds of industrial accident.”

Balancing the various cultural styles, identities and the various national interest of the different teams was always as complicated a game in these negotiations as the actual financial implications. Dale shook his head.

“No need for it. If you can soothe down Akhiro, I’ll take Argeles aside and run them through the safety record, procedures and policies and insurance record, and advise them on the likely outcomes of today’s incident before we restart.”

“Advise?” Banks said dryly. “Ok. If you feel like being screamed at in French for an hour you be my guest. Do they have any possible grounds on the industrial accident? I know the records but I haven’t had time to check the practice.”

“I have. The policies are being enacted on the ground, I’ve talked to employees; it all matches the data.”

“Thank God.” Banks glanced at his watch, then at the groups of suited men around them. “I’ll get the other teams separated and sorted out and join you at the Bay in an hour, reschedule the full meeting to resume at three.” Banks nodded at the graze. “You ok?”

“Grazed, that’s all. You?”

“Just damp.” Banks nodded and headed back towards the main admin building which was currently surrounded by fire engines and ambulances. Dale dialled rapidly for the hotel and waited for an answer, his eyes on the water that lay beyond the dry docks and cranes, and for a moment in the chaos there was warmth. Little Sarah was skipping there along the side of the dock, barefoot as she always was at home, her dress and her long brown hair floating out behind her.

There were a few Whats that Dale thought of as friends. They were visitors he saw regularly on the ranch, who often acknowledged him as they passed and who seemed to make that connection with him purely because they liked to, and Sarah had long been one of them. Inured to David who was unbothered by place and turned up as and when he felt like it, Dale had been less surprised than he might have been yesterday morning when he first saw Sarah here on the dock. It appeared that those that knew him had no difficulty in finding him whenever they chose to, or when he was doing something interesting to them.

She appeared to be about seven, from what little Dale knew about children’s sizes. He knew she was one of the children whose graves were in their woods, beside the wreckage of a wagon that had fallen from the trail. It was one of the many wagons that had been crossing their land constantly in the mid 1800s, and it was easy enough to guess why she should want to join him in a Wisconsin ship yard. Dale knew the maps and the pictures from hours spent at the Jackson Museum; plenty of pioneers had started out from territories in Wisconsin. Sarah gave him her usual beaming smile as she passed him, and danced off to walk by the water’s edge, confirming it. She was home. Her delight at being here was tangible. During the couple of opportunities there had been for tours around the shipyard yesterday, several of which were intentional cooling off breaks from the meetings before their clients came to blows, and one of which Dale had taken privately to speak to some of the men on duty here, he’d been aware of several pulls, like a little hand tugging on his jacket for his attention to come and look at the lake, and it was a rather lovely balance to the work. He had never expected to be the friend of a rather unusual little girl, but then his being an exec-turned-cowboy never seemed to bother Sarah.





*





            The hotel staff leapt to help with an enthusiasm that reflected what Flynn suspected ANZ were paying them. The limousines that swept away their shivering, wet French delegates from the shipyard were met by uniformed staff in the heavily yet tastefully tinselled, tree and bauble decorated foyer, armed with towels, sympathy, trays of steaming coffees and tumblers of brandy, and promises of rooms with the heating turned up high. Arrangements were being made to dry and press damaged suits. Dale had several soothing conversations with some of the more shaken up men, suggesting an hour’s break to recover before they reassembled in the briefing room, and Flynn did what he could to help. Once the Frenchmen were sorted out and dispatched to their rooms, Flynn and Dale headed in the other direction towards the elevator. A room a long way from their delegates was an essential for downtime.

Dale walked ahead of him into their tenth floor suite, shouldering out of the wet wreckage of his jacket. Flynn took it from him. “How cold are you?”

“Not bad.”

He looked as relaxed now as he had been downstairs, which was also as relaxed as he had been in the midst of a major emergency with explosions going on around him. He always rose to crisis, effortlessly, and despite being drenched he wasn’t shivering. And for that reason he needed watching, particularly when he was running on high. Flynn slid a hand inside his shirt and felt for himself. “You’re frozen. Get under the shower.”

Dale pulled his shirt off over his head, neatly folding it and laying it down with his jacket. Flynn turned the shower on full blast for him, starting to get out of his own wet clothes.

“I am not taking Paul into this.” Dale had said with finality to him when the emergency fax arrived around breakfast time yesterday morning. It had been a short and to the point communication: Jeremy Banks appealing – more or less begging - for Dale to come out to Wisconsin in person and assist him in sorting this mess out, since no one else capable or known to the teams was available, and an international deal of some significance looked in danger of coming apart and creating a major diplomatic incident. Dale had been monitoring the records of the meetings and participating by telephone for some days trying to keep it from hitting the rocks.

“Even if we weren’t this close to Christmas, I still wouldn’t. I know these teams. This is flat out warfare in a large industrial shipyard with nowhere else interesting to go, and it’s nasty stuff. Sudden death with power points.”

That might be phrasing borrowed straight from Riley, but Dale wasn’t given to exaggeration. Less than ten days from Christmas most of their preparations were done anyway, but Dale, who did more to practically support Paul and prepare with him for the annual family events than the rest of them put together and cared about them every bit as much as Paul did, had given hard thought as to whether he took this job at all. He hadn’t wanted to. This was probably the nearest Flynn had yet seen him come to refusing an assignment Banks had personally asked him to do.

“You don’t always have to do it, you know?” Riley pointed out while they packed with a plane on its way to the airstrip. Somewhere out in Wisconsin, Flynn suspected Banks was reading Dale’s return fax with relief and a large, celebratory drink that the cavalry was coming. “You don’t always have to be the good guy and carry everyone else’s stuff. Someone else can step up for a change and get the Christmas spirit battered out of them.”

“Don’t worry, I’m going to give this forty-eight hours, no longer.” Dale said rather grimly, and when he gave any kind of time estimation he never meant ‘approximately’. “In and out, no one is getting battered, and there will not be any mucking about.”

Riley gave him a rather reluctant, tugging smile. “Yeah, when you sound like that, I start thinking about coming too, just to watch you kick ass. Don’t take long.”

“I won’t.”

“I’m still very happy to come with you if you want, hon,” Paul had reassured him, but Flynn, reading Dale’s unspoken expression that he knew exactly what these meetings would be like and would not under any circumstances be exposing Paul to them, interrupted.

“No. You don’t need to be rushed off to a freezing shipyard when half the family’s due to arrive. I’ve got it covered.” 

“Only,” Riley said pointedly, “because it gets you out of all the Christmas stuff.”

Jasper, who had seen Dale’s expression too, caught Flynn’s eye and shot him a distinctly private grin.

Dale had been right that the meetings were nasty. But Flynn had watched him work with Banks before, and knew what he was capable of. It was seamless, the two of them knew each other well and if you knew what they were doing and how they worked together it was entertaining to watch them playing bad cop and badder cop. Banks could out roar and out table thump the loudest of the American team when necessary, the man had an energy that could hold the room without effort. Dale in balance, never raised his voice, never failed to be precisely polite and to the point, could have ice in his eyes if he was mildly irritated. His presence more or less reached out and whacked you around the head even if you knew him well. These men didn’t, and they were according him a whole lot of respect.

At one time, he would have been doing this unconsciously. These days he had more understanding of how people worked. Flynn noticed with some amusement Dale using James’ habit of giving someone doing something questionable a slow, assessing stare that stopped pretty much every family brat in his tracks, and the stance Jasper used to communicate to Dale or Riley that he was there, watching, and did not approve of whatever it was they were doing. Both worked well on diplomats and executives. And yet he froze down any attempts to snipe or to harshen the tone of the debate, not allowing it to get out of hand. There was a protectiveness at work here too. It reminded Flynn of watching Dale lean on the table in the kitchen a couple of Christmasses back, the first time he’d informed the other brats with the same intensity he had here that it was time to stop fighting, get it together and sort things out, except at home with them he did it from the heart, with all of him and without his safety catch on. Banks muttered to Flynn by the coffee pot on the first day, “I don’t know what you lot feed him on that ranch, if it’s all the beef and fresh air, but he moves these deals forward like a bat out of hell.”

He was in many ways an exceptional man.

In the shower, Flynn turned Dale to face him and took another look at the graze on his forehead. Neat, small, nothing much to see, and there were no other apparent marks on him from any other shrapnel pieces. Despite their experience this morning, and Paul would have probably added darkly because of it when it came to their adrenaline addict, Dale’s eyes were alive. He was energised the way Flynn had always seen it: like a kid playing a computer game, and it was deeply, powerfully appealing in a way Dale had no concept of.  

“That was most likely a pipe meltdown,” Dale said reflectively, moving back so Flynn could get deeper under the hot spray. Flynn pressed gently around the edge of the graze. It didn’t look like it was going to bruise.  

“Does that hurt?”

“No. Although it won’t be one factor, it’s inevitably a perfect storm of circumstances. Their last recorded accident was five years ago, and that and every other accident over the past twenty-four years have been minor falls, no breaches of inspection or regulation.”

And he’d checked that out thoroughly since they’d been here, Flynn had watched him do it in exactly the way he did everywhere they went; watching, talking to people as they worked, quiet and unassuming while internally he sucked in data like an industrial vacuum cleaner. People and information; Dale drew in everything available to him about both. Flynn ducked his head under the spray to soak his hair, ran it off his face with both hands and reached for Dale, drawing him close. “How are you going to handle Argeles?”

Dale’s hands measured his hips. “How would you handle them? If you’re going to write that paper.”

The things you talked about in bed late at night when you’d spent the day watching three groups of men fight in three different languages…. Flynn smiled.

“Not in any way Riley would approve of. I’m not sure observations on the stress responses of executives in negotiations is going to do much in brokering a deal.”

“I saw you watching Jean-Luc. The tall one with glasses. His pulse jumps in his neck about fifteen seconds before he loses. He did it three times this morning that I noticed.”

“The veins in his hand swell too, you can see the adrenaline shoot.” Flynn said reflectively. “He’s also the one that the two Americans with the beards use to wind Akhiro up. Push his buttons and he explodes on cue.”

“He’s the new member of the French team, they promoted him from one of their scouting teams a few months back.”

“Ah.” Flynn said with comprehension. “Least experience, most to prove.”

“And the most forceful voice on that team, and the most exploitable.” Dale rinsed soap from his hair. “Victor doesn’t have him under control and he doesn’t know when to back down. I plan on this being a short, sharp education on why Victor needs to keep him quiet when we get back to work this afternoon, or they’re going to make fools of themselves.”

“Which will make a bigger mess of this diplomatically.” Warmed through, Flynn turned the shower off and handed Dale a towel. “How are you going to do it?”

“Firmly.” Dale said succinctly. “If necessary I’ll get downright medieval, but we’ll try the polite way first.”

Riley would really enjoy seeing him do this. “Are you still thinking this is going to finish on time?”

“Yes.” Dale wiped his face and wrapped the towel around his waist, going in search of a fresh suit. There was a pot of coffee and cups put out on the table alongside a plate of pastries; room service had been busy. Dale poured a cup as he passed, knocking back the contents then refilling the cup and taking it with him to search the closet. “We are going to be out of here by three pm and home tonight.” From his tone, he intended to walk through walls to achieve it if necessary. “If Akhiro’s accepted, then we’re finished. There is not going to be game playing, it’s only signing and witnessing papers.”

“Enough coffee.” Flynn relieved him of the cup. “Slow down, get yourself a juice from the fridge and eat one of those rolls.”

“Yes sir.” Dale took a roll and went to the fridge in the corner of the room. He paused beside it for a moment, and Flynn, taking the opportunity to put the coffee back in the pot, saw him looking out of the window with an expression Flynn recognised.

“Who? Your little girl again?”

“Sarah.” Dale smiled faintly at whatever he was watching. “Yes. She’s down there playing on the grass.”







*







            Just get on with it, Riley had urged on the phone last night. Stuff to do here. People arriving any minute. Trees to put up. That kind of thing.

Yep, working on it.

Sarah still around?

Yes. I think we’re probably near her home.

Seriously? Wow. Have you got time to go look with her?

Possibly. If a spare hour could be found between tying up this deal in such a way that none of the parties involved could pull on loose ends, and in getting home at a reasonable hour, then it was very tempting. But there was stuff to do at home. Lots of stuff to do. Rooms to prepare, probably people to collect from airports depending on the state of the roads, and Flynn had caught him surfing his blackberry earlier looking at weather and traffic reports around Jackson and figuring out the best routes when he should really have been listening to a group of diplomats quarrelling. Not that Flynn had complained about it; from the private glint in his eye he had understood and thought it was a very healthy distraction.

With just the Argeles team in the room they could conduct the meeting in French, which eased the issues with translation and semantic understanding, and there was only one set of cultural styles to keep in mind. Dale took them through the safety record, policies and procedures too fast to allow for much arguing, which wasn’t difficult since they had no real grounds to doubt them or to protest, and most of what they wanted to do, in plain terms, was be bloody awkward.

Banks sat quietly at the back, letting him get on with it. On the far right side of the desk Flynn was also listening, and more than that, he was watching the clients. Dale could see him letting the language flow over him while he took in faces and postures. He’d commented more than once about there being enough material for a conference in what went on in these meetings; he got these board room participants at a deep level with a wry compassion and an insight that helped Dale a great deal. He also had a knack of being present in a way that meant while he was never a distraction, the same way he never made anything harder, you also never for a moment forgot you had him here or forgot the sheer security he held with him. Paul was easy company when they were away together, and kept a strongly domestic feel around whatever they did, as if they were on vacation instead of working. It was a pleasure to share the sights or events of whatever was going on in the vicinity together in the evenings or their free time, and while Paul didn’t let much slide, it was all in his usual relaxed way. Flynn had a very firm hand indeed away from home, and a way of keeping work corralled behind a number of far more enticing things to do with him.

Dale flashed up another couple of graphs and found himself for the second time running his hand over his eyes. The light above the desk had an unpleasant flicker to it and the glare off the screen made it difficult to read. The following two slides were, if anything, worse. Too much time staring at screens and under electric light; he wasn’t used to it any more. Very much looking forward to being home tonight where the air was clearer and the view stretched all the way to the horizon, Dale carried on. Another brief, discreet rub at his eyes didn’t help. Near to turning the light off and getting rid of the issue altogether, he pulled up the next set of charts, and glanced briefly down at the folder of data open on the table. It took a moment to realise he couldn’t read a word of it. He couldn’t even see the titles. The table was equally blurred. And when he looked back at the screen, he had to admit it. He was struggling now to make out anything on the white board at all. It was just a mass of colour and light.

Which probably shouldn’t be happening. Particularly during a meeting.

He detachedly felt his stomach freeze over even as he heard his own voice continuing without pause. It wasn’t difficult; he’d seen the material, it was always possible to visualise anything he’d read, and he found himself putting one hand more firmly down on the desk to lean on it, finding the cool wood somewhat reassuring.

Facts. Statistics. Probabilities. A brisk summary of risks and interests. There was a silence after he drew the bottom line for them. Then Victor said, rather defeatedly which made Dale realise he’d somewhat lost control of his tone and his expression, that they would take a little time to discuss among themselves.

They left the room. He heard them go. Dale grasped the desk, hearing the footfall traipse into the corridor and the door shut, then the slop of water from a carafe into a cup and Jerry Banks’ chuckle.

“Thirty eight minutes flat. Well done, that’s the first time I’ve seen Jean-Luc lost for words.”

Thirty eight minutes, twenty four seconds.

Shut up.

Dale made a careful assessment of precisely what he could see. The blurring was worse now. There was nothing but a sea of distorted colour, nothing near or far that was at all distinguishable.

Which you are going to have to do something about.

Standing here, holding on to the desk, seemed like a better option.

“Akhiro texted, they’re here. I suggested they grab some lunch and we meet again at two,” Banks went on. “I’ll order some coffee and sandwiches. Want to set up the proposal on screen?”

Yes, he probably could. The laptop was within reach, he didn’t need to see the keys to remember their location, he could probably remember the location of the file more or less….

How long do you want to try faking this out?

He realised, belatedly, that he was controlling a tremor in his hand on the desk. And before he had time to think or plan or do anything sensible, he found himself turning slightly but helplessly in Flynn’s direction. He heard Flynn leave the chair a split second later.  

“Dale?”

It was his normal, level tone, the one that made any crisis manageable, and in which he so often said, just tell me. Blurt it out, we’ll make sense of it later.

“I have a… slight problem here.” Dale said to Flynn and the desk, aware that he was sounding flippant, which never went down well with Flynn in moments of crisis. Dale cleared his throat and tried to pull it together.

“Jerry, I am sorry but my vision seems to have gone.”

“Gone how?” Banks demanded. “Are you all right?”

Dale felt Flynn turn him by the shoulders and felt the warmth of Flynn’s hand near his face. Nothing appeared in the blur at all.

“It’s blurred. I can’t see much at all, just colours. The knock on the head this morning may have been harder than I realised.” His voice sounded ridiculously conversational in his own ears. “I could do most of this from memory if you operate the presentation-”

“We’re finding a hospital, right now.” Flynn interrupted him levelly, just ahead of Banks’ explosive,

“For God’s sake, you’re not doing anything but getting checked out! I’ll get you a car. What do you need?”

“We’ll be fine, thanks. The car would be appreciated.” Flynn’s arm gripped around Dale’s waist and held them hip to hip, strongly enough that as Flynn moved around chairs and towards the door it was possible to sense direction and walk with him.

“I’ll tell the hotel to hold your room here.” There was a click as Banks picked up the phone. “And to find you a hospital with a decent neurology unit. Dale, go. Forget the bloody meeting, you’ve done more than enough. Keep me posted.”

And they were in the hallway. There was the hum of an elevator being summoned and the slide of the doors, and as soon as they shut, Flynn’s arms closed around him.

“Listen to me. Any headache? Nauseous?”

“Nothing.” Against Flynn’s chest Dale pulled himself together, running through the information he had. “It hasn’t felt like concussion. I don’t think I’m confused or incoherent. Although since that was all in French, it seems a bit unfair to ask you to judge; I could have been reciting the French National Anthem for all either of us know-”

“Breathe.”

Aware that he was sounding increasingly frivolous and that it really wasn’t good, Dale felt Flynn put him back and Flynn’s forehead rested lightly against his, Flynn’s hands on his hips and Flynn’s breath on his face. That helped. That really helped. Almost automatically he found himself letting go, letting his shoulders drop and breathing in time with Flynn.

“Banks said you were straight to the point.” Flynn said quietly against him. “You were fine in the shower and you’re making sense now. Your balance is normal. I don’t think there’s been anything we’ve missed. You’re ok.” Flynn’s head tipped against his to kiss him, gently but firmly. “You are going to be ok. Nothing is going to happen that we can’t handle.”

His conviction was as deeply comforting as his arms. Flynn’s hand cupped the back of his head, stroking there. It distracted from the faint throb of the graze on his forehead. A very minor graze, it had been barely visible once he’d showered. Whatever had struck him there obviously hadn’t struck that hard. And yet a light tap in the right place could cause remarkable amounts of damage to various neurological functions.

Dale’s brain would have helpfully lined up and trotted out all the information he had on the subject, save for Flynn going on talking steadily and definitely in ways that required answers as he steered them out through the front door to a waiting car. He kept it up all through the very bizarre experience of travelling through a city without seeing any of it. Questions about the safety records of the shipyard. The history of the ship yard. Where the root of such safety procedures came from and how they related to the equipment. It was, damnit, stuff Dale was slightly obsessively interested in; the history and how stuff worked was something he hoovered up and had done all his life, and sitting hand in hand with Flynn he couldn’t resist letting the information flow. The driver must have been somewhat surprised by the discussion on the evolution of modern steel production. Since Flynn didn’t let him get a word in edgewise, it was hard to tell.

He had never in his life walked into any ER as a patient. It was an experience he could have lived without.

They were taken somewhere almost immediately where he was requested to lay down in a tone that suggested professional disapproval of someone with a probable head injury wandering about. Flynn kept hold of him all the time he was reeling off personal data to someone registering him onto a form, and someone else shone lights near his face and asked a lot of questions about this morning’s explosion with at least two additional people in the vicinity who seemed to be involved. There was a brief suggestion from someone that Flynn might like to wait outside. Dale sternly suppressed the swell of panic a second before he heard Flynn’s reply; it was a perfectly friendly no thank you, and yet said in a tone that meant it would take someone very stupid to argue with him. Frankly it was the kind of no they could have used this morning around the French delegates.

With a paddle.

I may be slightly hysterical at this point.

Help was offered to undress. Dale would have selected freely from comments such as: thank you, that will be happening over my cold, dead body and did I mention the issue was my head, so there is no need whatsoever to take any clothes off. However Flynn asked them politely for a moment of privacy, and thank God, they all went away. Holding on to the chill metal side of whatever it was they’d sat him on, Dale felt Flynn put both hands heavily on his shoulders, leaning there for a moment with weight that squashed out some of the tension. Then he pulled Dale’s tie loose and stood him up to help him out of the jacket in a way that said he would be getting undressed now and it wasn’t up for discussion.

“This is a side room, about twelve feet square. Mostly enclosed by glass. I think we’re going to find you’re seen quickly, they’ll want to keep you still and take all the precautions. Any headache now?”

“Nothing at all, just the blur.”

“Any better? Any worse?”

Dale moved, somewhat unwillingly, to let Flynn take his shirt off. “Exactly the same.”

“It’s ok.” Flynn sounded quiet and focused. “I want you to think about what Jas would say. This place is full of people and clutter. You’ve been around hyped up people all day. Ground and centre yourself, shield yourself. You don’t need to be carrying anyone else’s stuff around.”

“You were quite a sensible scientist when I met you.” Dale pointed out. Flynn stood him up to help him out of his pants.

“Breathe, and do it now.”

Flynn was right; public places like this were always full of people’s leftover stress and distress. The stale energy lingering could feel like trying to swim through glue, and it built up slowly and subconsciously. Dale often didn’t realise until he stopped and thought about it, what was his own feelings and what was energy attracted and carried around like particularly heavy bits of lint. He was aware of feeling distinctly less heavy and jangled when it was done, and more acutely aware of a feeling of really, seriously not wanting to be here, which was very much all his own.

The giggle somewhere on the far side of the room startled him.

He recognised it almost immediately, not least because he knew it well. Sarah seemed to be finding an ER room as amusing as she appeared to enjoy the banks of the lake. It was distracting to consider what on earth a pioneer child was making of a modern hospital, and actually rather comforting to know she was still around.   

There was some kind of cotton garment, which was supposedly clothing but covered nothing of any purpose, and without which apparently American hospitals failed to feel they could function. A brief evaluation of its structure, which he had to do with his hands, confirmed a rather grim suspicion that its main purpose was the speed with which it could be removed in a crisis. There were more people; considerably more poking and prodding; and questions which were exasperatingly repetitive until the urge became nearly over powering to suggest that he wrote down and signed a declaration to the effect that he was well aware of his date of birth, the year, the current president and was experiencing no issues with his memory or orientation. That was followed by a CT scan which was the one time that Flynn physically let him go. He was there all the time. Every second Dale knew exactly where he was, and the man radiated calm. From his reactions, what was happening was normal, routine and exactly as he expected, and nothing worth being concerned about.

The scan was possibly the worst part of the day so far. The isolation should have come as a welcome break. In the humming of the machine, seeing nothing but a haze of white and grey, Dale lay on the hard table and felt the shaking in his hands again. It was pathetic. Flynn was merely feet away from him on the other side of the door.

“The mine was scarier.”

David’s familiar voice never exactly came externally, and he’d never welcomed it more. Dale shut his eyes, smothering the grim laugh that burst out before he moved more than the scan technicians appreciated.

“In your opinion.”

“Less deep pits. Less dark. In and out the same way.”

“Less snakes.”

David snorted. “This is Wisconsin, don’t bet on it.” There was a loud click from the machine and the humming went up a notch. Dale felt the pressure of a hand wrapped briefly around his own.

“I’m not enjoying this.” Dale admitted to him. The hand on his squeezed.

“You’re not badly hurt, this seems worse than it is. You’ve got it.”

The machine clicked off, the door opened and the sensation of David’s hand faded, but knowing he was there made it considerably more bearable.

Whoever it was that came to speak to them after the scan was male, slightly more than five foot eleven, wore an aftershave that was marketed on the third unit, shelf number four, six spaces to the left in the toiletries aisle of the drugstore Paul preferred to shop in, and had a Maine accent.

“The scans are clear,” was the most relevant part of what they said. “No bleeds, everything looking exactly as it should. The blurred vision is most likely a concussion.”

“We’re about twelve hundred miles from home and we had a flight standing by for tomorrow or the day after,” Flynn said. He’d done most of the talking and asked all the questions, and the assertiveness of it was as unmistakable as the tone; Dale had known enough Tops now to recognise it. He is mine, and this will be done right. This was probably neither the time nor the place to be appreciating his possessiveness quite this much. The medic’s answer was prompt and unhelpfully cheerful.

“No, sorry. I don’t recommend you fly for at least a week. A concussion is still a brain injury, you don’t need the air pressure making it worse.”

That is ridiculous.

The medic patted his arm, which was probably well intentioned.

“The best thing you can do is rest. Do as little as possible and wait. I’m going to admit you, we’ll keep you under observation overnight and see how you’re doing in the morning.” 

“You cannot stay in this city for a week, waiting for me to be able to fly.” Dale said flatly as soon as the medic removed himself. Flynn stooped over him and Dale felt Flynn’s mouth close briefly and very gently on his.    

“Flynn, you are not spending Christmas in a hotel.”

“I’ll let you know what we are going to do.” Flynn said with finality. “Whatever I decide, we will manage and we’ll be doing it together.”

It was his most blunt, chauvinistic, I have spoken tone of voice. Which helped. Dale shut his eyes, aware that it was not done to cling to one’s bloody minded partner in a public place. Flynn put an arm around him, pulled him over and hugged him anyway, bone crushingly hard, his head heavy against Dale’s. He could transmit so much comfort.

“The harder job will be preventing half the household coming out here to join us. We need to call home and let them know what’s going on.”

Dale felt him pull out the phone, heard him dial with his stomach twisting even harder. Paul’s voice answered, so normal in this ridiculous place that it made his throat clench painfully.

“Falls Chance Ranch.”

“It’s me. We’ve got a bit of a problem. The steelworks we were at this morning had a meltdown and a pipe blew. Dale caught a bit of the shrapnel in the forehead. He’s only grazed, it’s minor but his vision’s blurred.”

“What?” Paul sounded sharply interrogative more than horrified. “Where are you?”

“At the hospital. He’s been scanned, there’s no bleed or damage, he’s fine.”

“Is he ok? Is he there?”  

Dale felt for the phone, taking it from Flynn.

“Hi.”

“Don’t you hi me, are you all right darling?” Paul’s voice was warm and demanding and so very normal. “What are you doing standing around exploding pipes?”

“The rod and bar mill blew up. I’m fine, the world’s just a little blurry right now.”

“How blurry? Can you see objects? Is it near? Far?”

“It’s…. pretty much everything.” Dale admitted, somewhat unwillingly. “I can’t make out anything much, there’s just a mess of colour. There’s barely a scratch, whatever it was hardly touched me.”

“Ok, that happens.” Paul sounded reassuringly normal about it, and Paul was the one of them who had seen fishermen with appalling head injuries and any amount of neighbours kicked by stock, fallen off roofs and ladders and rolled in farm equipment; he knew. “Are they keeping you in overnight?”

“Observation. Apparently.” Dale swallowed, not sure how to explain. Flynn took the phone back from him.

“He’s upset that they’ve advised we don’t fly. They think for at least a week.”

I am not upset. Thank you.

“Honey, I won’t let you fly, I don’t care what they say.” Paul sounded emphatic on that. “That’s the last thing we’re going to risk with a head injury. Planning to get home isn’t something we worry about tonight, let’s take this one step at a time. I can get a flight out and be with you by tomorrow morning-”

“No.” Dale said as calmly as he could. “I’m not dragging you out of the house too, this does not need to disorganise everyone’s plans. We will be home as soon as I can arrange it and it will be fine”

“You’re not arranging anything, and you’re not bossing me or anyone else. Put the universe down and step away.” Paul said firmly. “Sweetheart, it’s ok. Luath and Darcy arrived this morning. They and Jas and Riley can handle the stock, operate the stove and find the pantry, they’re all perfectly competent and if you’re dealing with this then I need to be with you.”

No. I mean it-”

“We’re fine for now.” Flynn interrupted. “Paul, I’ll give you a call later. Right now they want him to rest and stay as quiet as possible.”

“So having a fight with the brat is probably not a great idea?” Dale demanded, losing all patience. “Is that what you’re telling him? The brat is perfectly competent to get a grip. Thank you. So very kindly.”

“The brat needs to remember his place before I put him there. Starting with across my knee.” Flynn said bluntly. Dale snorted.

“With a concussion. Come off it. You won’t, and I know you won’t.”

“How much do you want to find out?” Flynn’s voice went deeper, in a way that went directly to and gripped some of the most sensitive places in him at gut level.

Line, here. I am still me, you are still you. I have still got you.

“Oh sweetie, let me get that for you.” Paul said with way too much compassion. “Paul, I can’t see a thing, I’m frustrated out of my mind, I cannot get my head out of the meeting I walked out of in the middle which I hate, I don’t know what’s going to happen and if I let myself stop long enough to think I’m going to be scared. So all I want is for all this mucking about to stop and to come home.”

They were a lethal team. Throat clenching, Dale felt Flynn’s hand cup around his head and the very hard kiss Flynn pressed into his hair.

“When I decide what we’re going to do, you’ll be the first to know. Settle down.”

“Hold that thought, get some rest and call me when you can.” Paul said firmly. “I love you, both of you. Dale, if you make any hospital staff cry, you’ll be in trouble. Behave.”

“I am not that bad.”

“I can hear the glaring from here.” Paul retorted. “Behave yourself sweetheart, it’s going to be ok. I’m here and I’ll talk to you later.”

Flynn took the phone. Dale heard the click of the call terminated and Flynn reaching to his pocket.

“There’s a text on your phone from Banks asking how you’re doing.”

“I need to let him know I won’t be back to the meeting.” Still curled against Flynn, Dale drew up his knees and ran his hands over his face. It didn’t clear his vision any and his hands weren’t steady. Flynn tapped his hip where his fingers rested.

“Listen. If we agree you finish the meeting by conference call, you promise me you do it laying still, without letting Argeles get out of hand, and you keep it as short as possible. Deal?”

Dale dropped his hands, startled. “Are you serious?”

“Deal?” Flynn repeated. Staggered, Dale made a sign of the cross over his heart.

“Yes sir.”

“Give me the number.”

Banks answered within a couple of rings. “Any news? How are you doing?”

Irrelevant. Dale leaned an elbow on his knees, listening behind Banks for whatever was going on in the conference room.

“I’m fine, just concussed. Apparently. Jerry I’m stuck here overnight, but if there’s anything left I can do then put me on conference call.”

“Are you fit to do it?”

“If we can do it fast and without bickering I’d appreciate it, but yes.”

Without hesitation Banks hit the switch, Dale heard the line change and heard Banks’ voice, short and sharp.

“Aden’s on conference call. The man’s talking from a hospital bed so I’m calling time on this. Let’s hear a position from each team, right now.”

Very good place to start. Metaphorically speaking, Dale clicked down his visor, pulled on his gauntlets and walked with some relief back into battle.

Since he couldn’t see anything he could make sense of, and being moved around the building when you had no idea where you were, where you were going or what it looked like anyway was a tedious business, he took very little notice of the next hour and focused entirely on the phone. He was vaguely aware of being helped across to what felt like a bed, which was slightly more comfortable than whatever had been laying on, and aware at one point of a glass of water arriving in his hand which he drank. Nothing much else was relevant, and it wasn’t until the meeting was successfully wrapped up, he was filled with the satisfaction of a complex problem properly solved and he finally ended the call that he realised the room was still and quiet, and Flynn was sitting on the bed beside him.

Flynn took the phone. “Happy with that?”

Guilty that he’d lost all sense of time and place including Flynn as anything more than background while he jousted with other multi-national, behaviourally challenged game players, Dale pulled his head together.

“Sorry, you must be so bored. It’s tied up, I’m relatively happy. They’ve all signed, they’re headed home, it hasn’t caused a diplomatic incident and I’m convinced that it won’t come apart by new year.” He put his hands down to the covers that had been put over him. Stiff sheets and blankets. Flynn’s leg was warm against his on the other side of the covers, a solid and immoveable weight, and it had been there a long time. This was such a stupid situation to be in.

“The call button’s here.” Flynn guided his hand to the switch on his left. “It’s a single room. Third floor, bathroom on the far right corner of the back wall, window on your left side. Can you see any of it?”

Not even a change in the light to suggest the direction. Just one blurred mess of colour.

“Nothing.” Dale admitted. “No edges to anything.”

He heard the shut-down signal as Flynn turned his phone off, Flynn’s arm came around his shoulders to lean him forward and put the pillows flat, and he heard the thump of Flynn punching them back to shape.

“Lay back, get comfortable.”

In a strange place, in the middle of nowhere, when they ought at this moment to be getting on a flight that would mean being home in a few hours.

“What time is it?”

“About four.” Flynn shook the covers over him and Dale felt Flynn’s palm run over his cheek.

James and Niall were planning to arrive the day after tomorrow. Their room wasn’t yet ready, it had been on Dale’s list to do when they got home. The shower head needed replacing in the attic where Theo and Bear best liked to sleep, and while Bear tended to focus in on and fix any plumbing, electric, carpentry or any other basic repair job that needed doing on the ranch any time he was around it was a matter of pride to Dale that as much as possible faults were fixed and managed before Bear found them. Riley had wanted to tar the back of the winter shelter, the last chance they would have before it got pressed into emergency use as the weather got really heavy, and the oil needed checking and changing in both tractors. He and Jasper were half way through putting up a new shelving rack in the garage, something they were doing in odds and ends through the evenings.

“It’s approximately nineteen hours by car home,” Dale said out loud. “Depending on the route we take and whether there’s snow on the roads. I can organise a relay of drivers, we’d be home by early-”

The bed creaked as Flynn lay down beside him, and Dale turned thankfully over into Flynn’s arms. One of Flynn’s legs hooked over his, heavily pinning him down, and Flynn’s hand found its way under the covers and past the ridiculously inadequate gown to rub slowly and deeply over his back. Body to body with him, his face against the familiar plane of Flynn’s chest, Dale took a long breath and felt his head start to slow down. With the meeting concluded he felt – done. It was never easy to leave anything unfinished without it eating at him like acid. Which Flynn understood, the way he always understood, the way he and Paul and Jasper always got this delicate tightrope balance of power when he worked, wholly unencumbered by it. Telling them just how much he appreciated it was always more than he had the words for.

“The best way,” Flynn said in his ear, “to repair this, is to let your brain rest. So I want you to clear your mind now. It’s ok, kid. I’ve got you. I’ll handle whatever needs handling. Stop for a while.”

Dale shut his eyes, forehead against Flynn’s chest.

“I am so sorry about this.”

“Stop.”

“Please don’t worry.”

Flynn made the deep, quiet sound he made when a horse was getting restless. “Stop.”





*





Banks arrived around half past seven that evening. Flynn hadn’t turned the light on. The nurse coming regularly to check on Dale didn’t need it and from her first smile and signal to him not to get up she had been more interested in Dale resting than in propriety. When Banks tapped at the door Flynn slid away from Dale, clicked the side rail softly up on the bed and went into the hallway to meet him. Banks looked anxious at the sight of the dark room.

“He sounded fine earlier, is it that bad?”

“No, he’s just asleep. The scans are clear and we’ll probably be free to go in the morning.”

Still in his suit from this morning’s meeting, Banks took another grim glance through the door. “I heard from his PA when she stood your flight home down. What are you two going to do stuck out here if he can’t fly? I’ll stay, of course, and the hotel has your rooms held for as long as you need them,”

Flynn shook his head, appreciating the gesture. “No. That’s kind, but there’s no need for you to stay, Jerry. As soon as they clear him to travel we’ll make our plans.”

Banks gave him a wry look. They’d known each other for a few years, from Banks’ own nephew visiting the ranch in the days before Dale, and Banks eventually clapped a hand on Flynn’s shoulder, sighing.

“I know. I know. You like us to get the hell out of your way when you’ve got a man down. All right. I’ll take my flight out, but his PA is on stand by and she’s a bloody marvel, and so is mine, and both of them can always get hold of me. Any time, anything you need, you let me know.”

“Thanks.” Flynn shook the hand Banks offered, Banks cast a quick look again through the door, and left. Flynn closed the door to Dale’s room softly behind him and leaned on the bed rail, watching Dale’s face. He was half curled on his side, laying too still, a little too pale. Dale didn’t stir when Flynn pulled the covers straight over him or smoothed back dark hair that had slipped down over his forehead. Flynn pulled out his phone and sat on the windowsill.

It was answered within two rings by Jasper’s voice, calm and even.

“Falls Chance Ranch.”

“Hey.”

From the change in sound, Jasper was moving rapidly somewhere quieter.

“Hey. How are you doing?”

“We’re on calmer water.” Flynn leaned back against the window frame, eyes on Dale. “He’s asleep. They gave him something heavy enough to knock him out about an hour ago. They’re hoping he’ll sleep off whatever’s going on.”

“How was he feeling?”

“Other than the blurred vision, physically fine. He’s never been disoriented or unsteady, no headache, no dizziness, his attention’s fine, there’s nothing else showing up at all. The ophthalmology department cleared him for any eye injuries and the head and neck scans are clear. No fractures, no bleeds, no swelling, nothing. They ran the scans past several people, including the head of their department to be sure, and they’re talking about repeating the tests in the morning to check that nothing’s in the process of developing, but right now they can’t find anything to worry about.”

“How worried are you?”

Jasper knew him well. Flynn sighed, since this was a man he never needed to edit for and always knew when he was lying anyway. 

“I understood a lot of what the neurologist was looking for in the physical exam. His muscle control, reflexes, everything was as it should be. They’re checking him every hour and his eyes are reacting as they should. I think he’s ok. Eye control is spread all through the brain, chaotic processing comes with it trying to deal with being shaken around from a blow. The concussion cascade, excessive transmitter release, impaired neurotransmission, imbalance of chemistry across cell membranes-” Aware that he was now somewhat blurredly reciting what he could of the textbooks and papers he’d been pulling to mind for the last few hours, and that it was mostly for his own comfort, Flynn made himself stop. “It’s known everything goes temporarily screwy and then gradually settles again. I think he got hit harder than he realised. He was high on adrenaline at the time.”

“So it’s just a case of how long it takes to settle.” Jasper finished for him. “Do you want one of us out there with you? Or, Riley’s plan, if you’re going to be stuck in a hotel out there, we all come join you.”

“No. Riley would be like a cat on hot bricks in here.” Flynn said shortly. “I’ve got one brat doing the ‘I’m fine let’s get out of here’ act; I don’t need two of them at it.”

“Paul or I can get out there by morning.”

“You’re offering to fly?”

“If you need it.”

Yes. Dale was one of the very few people Jasper might be willing to take his first step onto a plane for. Flynn shook his head.

“No. Dale doesn’t need the guilt that he’s made you get on a plane or Paul leave the house at a bad time either.”

“We never let him get away with that, and if Paul or I just turn up then there isn’t much left for him to worry about.” Jasper pointed out. “So tell me what you’re planning.”

“As soon as they clear him as fit to drive, and I mean slowly, in stages, not the nineteen hour marathon Dale has in mind, then I’m going to drive him back. He’ll be calmer if we’re travelling rather than stuck in a hotel. And I don’t want him away from the house and family over Christmas, Jas. Not if there’s any way around it.”

“Going to hire a car?” Jasper said quietly. Flynn got up, pacing slowly by the window.

“Yes. If anyone’s driving him in the weather we’re going to run into in Wyoming and probably on the way, it’s going to be me, with no one else in the car I need to worry about. And I need to be concentrating on him and keeping him calm. A decent four by four, comfortable, and we’ll go no more than a couple of hours at a stretch. I’ll talk to the medics in the morning and see what they advise.”

“Give me a minute, I’ll open up a map.” Jasper was climbing the stairs, Flynn could hear his footfall.

“Where are Paul and Ri?”

“Ri took the tractor down to the home pastures to top up the hay bales there, he needed the distraction. It’s looking like heavy snow tonight, but the roads are well gritted. Paul’s here.”

“Flynn, call Caroline.” Paul took the phone and Flynn heard the whine of the computer powering up in the background. “Put your pride down, and if you won’t let us help than at least let her. I mean it. You’ve got enough to do looking after Dale. She’s already called us to say she’s waiting for instructions as soon as we know what we need, and I know her; she’ll have thought of a whole lot of things we haven’t.”

“Banks said much the same thing.”

“He’s right. It’s her job, we know she’s good at it, and she has the ANZ travel contracts that don’t stop for the holidays. If you call around locally you won’t find many places ready to loan out cars to travel across five states this week.”

“Ok, ok.” Flynn thought for a moment, leaning on the end of the bed to watch Dale. “Ok. I have no idea whether they’ll let him go tomorrow, but I’ll talk to her about getting plans in place.”

“Good. Do that now while Jas finds you routes.”

“Ok.” Flynn paused for a moment, listening to the edge in Paul’s tone. “Paul. He’s sleeping, he looks and sounds just the way he always does. I’ve seen the scans. We are ok. I am going to get him back to you in one piece.”

“Sweetheart, I’ve never had any doubts about that.” Paul said crisply. “Not ever. Now call Caroline.”









*





20th December





Yesterday evening, after the first round of vicious rows that passed for negotiation were done and Banks had disappeared to his hotel in search of a stiff drink, Dale had walked with Flynn across the yard to talk to a few of the heavily jacketed and gloved men unloading shipping containers. And then they’d walked further on, down to one of the massive dry docks by the water.

It was twilight and the dry dock was deserted. The security guards and their dogs were beginning to patrol, they paused for a brief chat, and then it was just them and the half-built ship and the water. The sheer size of her was shocking. Her bare metal sides hulked way above their heads to her decks, and the dock stretched away into the distance under the dim lighting. They walked slowly down to the end, grateful for the peace and the chance to stretch their legs. The wind coming off the lake was icy but fresh, the mist coming off the water was fresh and the silence was welcome.

Sarah appeared as if she’d slipped out of the air, skipping barefoot ahead of them just slightly out of kilter with gravity. Despite the misty twilight there was bright sun reflecting off her hair. Wherever she was and whatever she was seeing it was a beautiful day. She’d wanted him to come to the water’s edge and share the view with her out over the lake. She remembered it, and in that free moment he took the indulgence of sharing it with her. Her pleasure was contagious. It came in waves with those flashes of sunshine and sparkle on the water, she wanted him to see and to know all about it, and with no work left to do tonight he’d crouched there with her. In Sarah’s head there were no cranes, no concrete docks, no chimneys and towers. The images she shared were far simpler. Just the banks of the lake and the small shanty fishing village she’d been born in. The prairie schooner wagons the men were readying on the banks set their canopies like the sails on the boats, and she’d helped with caulking their wagon beds so they would float on water. Seven wagons were being prepared, a little fleet from their village getting ready to voyage. She knew all the people around them but two of the wagons she felt a proprietary pride in. They were hers and they were magnificent.

Her little presence tugged again on him now, like that small hand on his jacket.

She never spoke. It took so much energy to speak that it was something only the strongest and most experienced Whats were capable of, and in Dale’s experience with David, even they had to commit enormous effort to it. But Sarah never had difficulty in getting her meaning across.

Dale stirred, opening his eyes to that appalling blur of colours and shapes, nothing distinct or distinguishable. Her pull was clear; he could feel her standing by the bed, her head barely higher than the sheets. He could feel her questioning.

“I can’t look at anything right now.” Dale murmured to her apologetically. “Perhaps later. I am sorry.”

“Dale?” Flynn said against his hair. The room was dim rather than dark, Flynn was spooned against his back, his arm warm and heavy over Dale’s waist. It wasn’t the largest bed for the two of them but there was no one more practically competent than Flynn.  

“It’s Sarah.” With difficulty on the narrow mattress, Dale turned over towards him.

“She’s in here?” Flynn sounded surprised.

“Keen to go back to the lake, I think. Or wondering what we’re doing here.” Dale felt instinctively for his watch before the purposelessness of doing so reached him. “What time is it?”

“Five am.”

Ah. There had been someone around six pm yesterday evening who had been bearing sleep medication that Flynn had not regarded as optional. Dale felt the heat of Flynn’s hand above his face.

“How many fingers?”

Yes, you couldn’t ask something like ‘how is the vision?’ which would allow for a nice, non specific but mildly positive spin to be applied; you have to go for hard, verifiable fact. Which is ‘I can’t even see your bloody hand’.

Dale sighed, and the hand cupped his cheek instead, the thumb tracing his cheekbone.

“All right kid. Don’t panic. They told us it might take a few days. Does anything hurt?”

“No.”

Flynn was fully dressed, Dale felt the brush of his shirt as Flynn reached for something and a glass arrived in his hand.

“It’s juice.”

“Flynn, why don’t you go back to the hotel? Get some sleep that isn’t on the edge of a single bed and have a decent meal-”

Flynn’s hand guided him to drink, kept him at it until the glass was empty, then took the glass and Dale heard the clink of it being set down. Then Flynn lay down and drew Dale with him, making him get comfortable.

“Go back to sleep.”

The categoric forget it was hard to miss. They might be in a – well, less than desirable place was one way to put it – with no ability to see anything about it, and that was deeply unsettling, but the deep familiarity and the comfort of Flynn’s body, Flynn’s chest against his face, the feel of his breathing…it drowned out most of it.

They dozed for a while. Staff appeared at intervals, poked about and made machinery around them bleep, and went away again. The loose connection of one of the bleeping items making it slightly off pace with the others grated until Dale finally reached past someone in scrubs as they fiddled with it, found the connections and located the control panel and the loose wire, and fitted it properly back into place. The scrubs person didn’t comment, but at least they got out of the way while he slightly irritably rearranged the grouping of machines to a less illogical and inconvenient configuration. After which, Flynn collected his hands and held on to them whenever a member of staff walked into the room.

Breakfast was produced in the form of cold toast, cereal and coffee. Dale would have refused to experiment with cereal dripping with milk and no idea where the bowl was, but Flynn didn’t ask. He simply took the bowl and fed it to Dale, deftly managing it with a napkin that prevented a drop getting anywhere it shouldn’t, taking no arguments, and from him it was bearable. They shared the toast, which at least could be eaten by hand. Flynn’s phone bleeped once and Dale heard Flynn glance at it and then tap a reply. He normally hated texting.

“Who is it?” Dale asked him. Flynn grunted.

“Now? That’s Gerry wanting to know how you are. So far that’s him, Wade, Bear and James. Riley called late last night, and Jeremy Banks dropped by in person.”

Dale felt for his hand. Flynn’s fingers wrapped firmly around his and he took a seat on the edge of the bed again, against Dale’s leg.

That morning seemed to go on forever. At one point they were collected and taken down for a repeat of the CT scan, which was no more entertaining than the first one had been. About an hour after that, a group of medics arrived in a small herd, there was a lot of fiddling around with charts and lights being shone at his eyes, after which one of the less tedious of the voices finally announced that he would be more comfortable at home and he could be discharged.

“We know flying is out of the question,” Flynn said, “Can we travel by road if we take it gently?”

“The main thing you need is rest,” the voice sounded definite about that. “Car travel shouldn’t be a problem if you don’t get too tired. Avoid anywhere noisy and busy, too many people and conversation; quiet is going to help your brain settle the fastest. I’ll refer you across to the neurology department of your home hospital, but this should clear in a few days.”

That was considerably better than spending the next few days in a Wisconsin hotel. As soon as the room cleared, Dale reached for Flynn’s pocket.

“Give me my phone and I’ll sort a car and drivers-”

“Get Caroline, and I’ll talk to her.” Flynn interrupted. Wary, Dale dialled, and Flynn took it from him as soon as it rang.

“Caroline? Hello, it’s Flynn again.”

Again? You were talking to Caroline last night too?

“We’ll go with plan A,” Flynn was saying to the phone, “As soon as possible, if you can make the bookings – thank you, that’s ideal. Yes, he’s just been released. Thank you, that’s much appreciated.”

“Plan A?” Dale demanded. Flynn sounded quiet and very firm.

“There’s a four by four waiting outside, and I’m driving. We’ll do a couple of hours at a time, and take it very gently,”

What? Flynn, that will take days-”

“We are not getting excited about this or anything else.” Flynn’s voice made Dale realise that his voice may have risen slightly. “Caroline went ahead and booked places along the route last night. Give the others a ring, tell them we’ll start out as soon as you’re released and I’ll go find out what paperwork we have to fill out to get out of here. I’m going to be right outside and the door’s open. If you call me I’ll hear you.”

The very firm kiss on the top of his head did nothing to ease the edge off Dale’s temper. Riley answered the phone at the first ring.

“How is he?”

“’He’ is fine.” Dale said exasperatedly. “Flynn won’t be when I get hold of him.”

“Are you ok? What’s happening? Can you see anything yet?”

“I can see fine, it’s just blurred.” Dale calmed his voice deliberately, not liking at all how concerned Riley sounded. “They just said we can leave. Flynn has some ridiculous idea-”

“About coming home in stages. He and Jas figured it out last night with a map if they said you could travel. He said you’d been medicated, you were sound asleep except for when you were terrifying nurses.”

“What?” Dale demanded, confused. Riley laughed, although it sounded subdued.

“He said you wouldn’t remember. Nurses were checking on you through the night, you didn’t appreciate it.”

“Riley, I’ll have him please.” Jasper’s voice said in the background. Riley sighed.

“Jas wants you, just a sec.”

“Good morning.” Jasper’s voice was infinitely soothing. “How are you feeling?”

“In urgent need of talking Flynn out of this plan,” Dale said acidly. “If-”

“Slow down.”

“I do not need to slow down, I’m perfectly together thank you. We can’t take days travelling back, and the roads will be snowed under-”

“Flynn is a good driver,” Jasper interrupted him calmly. “You know that. We picked the route around the weather. I checked on the road conditions and I think you can. I understand you don’t want to, but that’s a different matter.”

“Jas-” Dale began, mostly in protest.

“And you trust Flynn, and you trust me.”

Of course I do!

The thought came impatiently, in part because-

because he really didn’t want to have to think about such things. Not in the way that he knew Jasper was about to make him.

We are stranded halfway across the states, it’s only a couple of days until Christmas, this is a mess that requires drastic, purposeful action, which I am good at. This is not the time to stand around chatting about trust!

I can’t do that this far away from you.

“Sometimes we all get slowed down, willing or not.” Jasper sounded calm rather than sympathetic. “You know that.”

…No. That is not what is happening here.

“You do know that.” Jasper said more quietly. “And you know sometimes there are reasons why.”

No. He helped other people understand this kind of stuff. Which made him realise the sheer stupidity of discovering that he believed, at heart, that it was not supposed to happen when he was working. Or away from home. Or to him.

“So it’s about finding the purpose in you slowing down for a few days.” Jasper went on. “You were rushing around with us getting the house ready before you left. You travelled out at high speed in an emergency, and I heard the meetings were high stress and loud ones. You had a lot of angry people you were trying to find agreement between. I can understand after that your body wants a few days to take life slowly.”

No. My body is fine, thank you, and the universe can take its higher purposes, and-”

“It’s forced a stop. Hasn’t it?” Jasper pointed out. “There is a reason. I’m not taking any risks with you by not giving your brain time to heal. I think you’ll find Flynn won’t either.”

There were times Dale seriously missed the days he could snort something rude and dismissive under his breath and ignore it all. Jas could be a brick wall of immovability when he thought you needed to listen to him. Any reason to be justifiably mad was fading fast, and all he really had left now was a deeply pathetic whine of I don’t want to! Which Jasper would understand but not commiserate with.

“……… Ok, so I know.” He said eventually. Very reluctantly. “You have a point. I don’t have to like it.”

“How’s that mood working for you?” Jasper’s deep voice was tinged with amusement and it was affectionate, not mocking. Reluctantly, Dale smiled.

“It’s not working on Flynn at all.”

“And it shouldn’t do, should it?” Jasper reminded him. “So put ANZ down and start thinking. You know better than this.”

“What advice did the medical staff give you, hon?” Paul’s voice said. Jasper had obviously switched the call to conference. Dale sighed.

“Don’t do too much and this will clear in a couple of days.”

“That’s heavily edited.” Flynn said unhelpfully, taking a seat on the bed. “They double checked the scan this morning; they’re sure it’s clear. He needs to be quiet, rest, stay away from stimulation and they’ll refer him over to Jackson hospital-”

“For what?” Riley said sharply. “Why are they letting him go if he’s not ok?”

“I am perfectly ok and we won’t need the referral.”

“And we were like this every time a medic walked into the room, I can tell.” Paul said dryly.

“We’ve been loving every second.” Flynn agreed. “Ri, they’re sure he’s fit to travel and he’ll feel better out of this place. A car’s arranged, we’re going to get on the road now. We’ll call tonight and I’ll take good care of him. Stop worrying.”









Flynn didn’t let him do a thing. Which was deeply, deeply annoying. Caroline’s forethought and powers of organisation had apparently extended to having their belongings at the hotel packed up and brought over so that they were already in the car, which was waiting in the car park downstairs. Without allowing him to help, Flynn dressed him in the sweater, shirt and jeans that he’d brought as out of work clothing for the evenings and for travelling. One of the nurses, having warned him that with poor focus he may find the sunlight glare too much or that moving around in a blur made him nauseous, supplied a pair of plastic and very dark sunglasses. She was proven right before they reached the front door. After which, Dale mostly kept his eyes closed. The four by four felt large, very high, quiet and the deep, squashy passenger seat was surprisingly comfortable. Dale seriously suspected both Flynn and Caroline’s hand at work there too.

“If the weather holds by the forecasts yesterday,” Dale commented, visualising maps as Flynn started the engine. “Then the fastest route-”

“No. Jas checked the weather and we’re going south, around it. And we’re doing it steadily, not fast.”

“Oh my God.”

The engine abruptly turned off again, Dale heard Flynn turn in his seat and his voice was absolutely matter of fact.

“Right. Level one.”

Ouch.

Aware that he was giving far too free a rein to the inner brat again, and that Jasper had already reined it in once this morning….. Dale swallowed, embarrassed and guilty. Flynn had just had two very tedious days away from home including a horrible twenty one hours hanging around a hospital. He’d had what sleep he could manage on the edge of a bed in a hospital with the phone he detested using buzzing constantly; he had a twelve hundred mile drive ahead of him in late December without help, and a partner who was…

Bitching, growling, snarking -

Flynn’s hand grasped his, very firmly, and his tone left no doubt at all that he was not going to discuss this. “I know Jasper talked to you about this. I’m going to make it very simple. You are going to be calm. You are not going to chew, and you are not stressing this injury. At all. I’m making your one and only job to take this trip as it comes, in a tranquil state of mind.”

“On command.” Dale muttered, half to himself, since that was exactly what it was. Do what you’re told, first time of asking, with a good attitude, was one of the primary rules of the ranch.  

“Exactly. So settle down.” Flynn leaned over and kissed him, which took any sting out of the words. “Put your seat back a little. Further. Water bottle in the cup stand to your right.”

The engine started again.

Working away from home was an automatic level three, always. Level one…. meant more than ‘serious stress management required’. Beyond even: ‘stop everything else and work, hard, on calming down’. Level one was a total stop. Ground zero. A place where his job was to let Flynn and the others handle life for him for a while. It was probably the level he had the greatest love hate relationship with. And while a sharp drop, there was no denying that it was logical under the circumstances. In practical terms it was inevitable; he didn’t have enough vision to do anything much without Flynn’s help. But Flynn was shifting him mentally, not practically, and that was what the levels had been written for. Damnit.

Trying to summon an appropriately civilised tone of voice, Dale heard the indicators and felt the car turn.

“Which way are we going?”

“It’s a route Jasper knows.”

Jasper had travelled up and down the mid states in the days when he wrangled stock. Hitch hiking, travelling in the stock vans and trains, walking the long roads between cities. Flynn’s hand rested on his knee, grasping gently.

“He thought you’d be interested. Your little Sarah should be too. I’ve seen you stand and look at the map in the museum for minutes at a time.”

Wisconsin. South. Which would mean to Iowa, then Nebraska across to Wyoming- it hit him in a flash, with a clear image of the 3d textured map in the museum, so strong he couldn’t believe he hadn’t realised, and for a moment it lifted him out of chagrin. 

“The Oregon trail? Seriously?”

“It goes right past our front door.” 

That… put a very different complexion on the trip ahead. It was quite a shock to think about. The very route so many people had taken over their land, the same road they had travelled. He and Flynn would cross the same land.

And I can’t see any of it. The flood of frustration swelled again and Dale made himself quell it with a determined hand. Ok. Calm. Accepting. Level one. Focus.

“What’s the weather like at home?”

“Jasper said they were due more snow last night. We’ll probably run into some, but the roads will be ploughed.”

“So where are we headed first?”

“La Crosse. We’ll stop around there and take a break, and then head on to Fort Dodge for the night.”

Many of the towns in this area had grown up from pioneers settling, building stores to service the wagons passing through, and wintering there.

Had this been where little Sarah’s journey had started? Leaving the city on this road bound for the trail with her seven beautiful wagons in its little group.  

Almost instantly as he thought it, he could see it. He felt her flood of delight as he reached for her, the basking in his attention which almost shamed him. She deserved better. He would have tried to find a way to share a sense of apology, but she was thinking of those wagons and the pictures were strong, arriving so fast they muddled together into a rush of flashes. He’d always thought he ‘saw’ images like this through his eyes. It was a surprise to discover that while he ‘saw’ them in the place he thought of as his eyes, with his eyes closed and no vision he could still see as clearly as always.

The wagons were pulled by pairs of horses, the seven canopied wagons rolling one after the other along the road, and she saw the street from her perch high on the driving seat between her father and her mother who held her little brother on her lap. People waved as the wagons passed by in their line like they were royalty. People they knew shouted goodbye, except Grandma who said nothing and waved as she watched them go with a smile and kisses blown but with big tears rolling. There were no streets, just a dirt track leading out of the town and onto the green prairie, and a woman had a kitten on her knee on the porch of one of the houses they passed, a little black and white kitten washing its face, and in the back of their wagon rocked the wooden sideboard, creaking with the drawers tied shut, and their beds were made up, with the same blankets from the beds in their wooden house by the water where the chickens pecked in the yard, but tonight, and the excitement filled her every time she thought of it, they would sleep in the wagon…





*





            With last night’s medication still heavy in his system, Dale rapidly dozed off in the passenger seat and he slept through the morning. The roads were clear, the traffic not too heavy and by lunchtime Flynn crossed the Mississippi and pulled off the road into the car lot of a small and elderly diner, old and far enough out of the way that only a few cars shared the lot and it would be quiet inside. Dale stirred when Flynn stroked his face, Flynn saw him blink under the dark glasses as he oriented. Whatever it was like to come to in a strange place with no way to see, he didn’t let it show. Flynn took the glasses gently from him.

“Hey. How are you doing?”

“Ok.” Dale instinctively ran a hand over his eyes. “Where are we?”

Flynn covered his hand to stop him rubbing. “Just outside La Crosse, at a diner. We’ll get some lunch and take a break. Any headache?”

“No, nothing.” Dale felt for the seatbelt release. Flynn popped it for him.

“Stay there, I’ll come get you.”

“I can find my way out of a car.” 

Into a car park with no idea of obstacles or what was coming at him from any direction. No, not a chance.

“First time of asking, with a good attitude.” Flynn said very definitely. He saw the minute sigh, but Dale stopped.

“…Yes sir.”

Flynn found their jackets, walked around to open his door and helped him into his coat. They ate sandwiches and chips in the diner which were easy enough for Dale to eat with his fingers, and while it was easy to see he wasn’t hungry, he ate what Flynn insisted on with a sincere effort that made it difficult not to relent about the sandwich or hug him. Flynn took him to the bathroom and helped him navigate there, picking up on the pitying glance of another man as he passed them. He didn’t hold out much hope that Dale missed it.  

In the car, with the seat tipped further back and the heating turned up to take the chill out of the air, Dale rapidly fell asleep again. It was a long, quiet day of grey road and listening to Dale’s soft breathing as he drove, hoping the rest was helping the scrambled signals in his brain. They pulled into Fort Dodge at five pm, and Flynn followed the simple directions Caroline had issued him for the B&B she had booked on their behalf. It turned out to be an elderly and rather beautiful Victorian house, filled with lace and silk patchwork and wrought iron light fittings, and Flynn guided Dale up to the warm room on the first floor, following the round and middle aged landlady who unlocked the door for them.

“Your assistant arranged for me to bring dinner up to you in your room if you wanted,” she said with her eyes on Dale as Flynn helped him take a seat on the bed. He was heavy eyed, pale and looking tired, never a state of mind he handled well, and his shoulders were up around his ears. “She explained you were having a difficult few days.”

“Please don’t put yourself to any trouble. We can go out for something, I could do with the walk.” Dale said courteously.

Nice try, kid.

“You came out of hospital this morning, we’re going nowhere.” Flynn said bluntly. “If you wouldn’t mind sorting us out with something light we can eat here we’d be very grateful.” He added to the landlady. “Anything will do, we’re not fussy.”

“We really don’t need to be such a nuisance.” Dale said even more politely. The woman’s eyes warmed further and she caught Flynn’s eye with a glint of amusement that said she was someone’s mother, she knew that tone well, and no, she wasn’t buying it either.

“It’s no trouble at all. I’ll bring you up a tray in about half an hour. There’s plenty of towels in the bathroom, let me know if you need more pillows or blankets.”

“Thank you.” Flynn waited until she closed the door, then helped Dale out of his coat and dug in the small bag he’d brought in for night wear. Dale grimaced as Flynn helped him out of his sweater.

“I’m fine, I’ve been asleep all day-”

“And we’re in a strange place, and that’s bad enough without not being able to see it or know where you are or where anything is.” Flynn dropped the sweater over the end of the bed and sat down beside him. “So let’s find the words. What’s scaring you the most right now?”

“I am not remotely scared of a boarding house.” Dale said irritably. “I would like a bathroom if there is one here.”

“Be quick.” Flynn guided Dale’s hand to the bed, helping him find his way around the brass bedstead. “It’s a large double bed, and there’s patchwork everywhere, most of it pink, on the bed, on the chair to your left and draped over the chest of drawers. It looks like an explosion in a Victorian drapery. The bathroom door is here, in reach of the bed. Sink ahead of you, bath to your left, toilet to the right.”

“Then I can manage from here.” Dale located the sink and took a firm step away from him. “Thank you.”

“Sweet.” Flynn patted him firmly on the seat of his jeans. “Call if you need me.”

ANZ’s finest shut the door with a firm click that made outwardly very clear that he was a man of independence and fraying patience who was being properly and responsibly calm, and who desired a few moments away from unwanted, quite unnecessary and rather overbearing attention. And that he was definitely not, in no way at all, perish the very thought, cross his heart and hope to die, desperate for comfort or finding this place terrifying, or anything like that.

That was getting sorted out before they did anything else this evening.

Flynn spent several minutes unpacking the few belongings they had brought, turned the bed down and opened the sash window a little to let air into the room. It was icy outside, there would be a hard frost tonight, but it was a habit of home that Dale had learned from him: he needed fresh air to be able to relax and sleep. The patchwork quilt concealed several thick blankets and the mattress was soft. For a tired, overstretched brat in a challenging state of mind it wasn’t ideal, but it could be worse.

Dale found his way out of the bathroom, groping until he found the bedstead. From the dampness of his hair, he’d made vigorous use of the sink in a valiant attempt to wake himself up a little. Flynn helped him out of his jeans and into the t shirt and shorts he slept in.

“Lie down and get comfortable.”

“It really isn’t necessary, I’ve slept all day.”

“If we were at home, you wouldn’t have been out of bed at all.”

Well we’re not at home, are we? We’re days from home. It’s nearly Christmas and we are stuck here, days from home.

Riley would have said it. Dale had a line in leaving those words, hanging unsaid in a tone that icicles dripped off when he was fed up enough. Flynn guided him to lie down, pulling pillows over for him to bank himself against. “There’s your phone. Call home and let them know where we are.”

If they’re what’s heaviest on your mind, kid, let’s go straight there and get this out.

With the detached expression to his face that meant a good deal more than the rising irritation it looked like, Dale stabbed rapidly at the numbers. He didn’t need to see where any of them were, his fingers just knew the patterns. Flynn folded and put aside his clothes, listening to the ring tone and Paul’s voice far away.

“Falls Chance.”

“It’s us.” Dale said shortly.

“You’re feeling that good about it?” There was the creak of a kitchen chair being drawn out. “Are you at Fort Dodge yet?”

“Apparently. We’re residing in a B&B Flynn doesn’t approve of the décor of. I don’t mind it in the slightest but then I can’t see it.”

“And you’re really, really fed up, aren’t you?” Paul’s voice was soft with sympathy. “How are you feeling honey?”

“I may bite the next person who asks me that.”

“I wouldn’t try it.” Flynn advised him. Paul laughed.

“Well I’m in another state so I’ll risk it. Are you tired?”

“I damned well shouldn’t be, I slept all day.”

“So that’s a yes then? Sweetheart, you’re concussed.”

“So people keep telling me.” Dale said acidly.

“And that snotty tone is making you feel better,” Paul agreed. “Ok I see the plan. Go on then honey, do the face and the board room voice, let’s go for it and get it out of your system, I’ll help. Shall we start with ragging on the state and work down, or the B&B décor and work up? I don’t know much about Idaho but I’m sure the gems suck more than they’re supposed to. And just damn the whole potato thing.”

“Not falling for that.” Dale said even more shortly.

Paul’s voice was gentler, softly teasing which usually worked well with him in this knife edge frame of mind. 

“What, getting tricked into cheering up? Or telling me you’re feeling lousy?”

Since that begged the obvious point that anyone resisting help to regulate wanted to stay mad and disconnected, Dale wisely left it alone. Flynn, having arranged the room to avoid anything Dale could possibly stumble over or knock himself on, sat down on the bed beside him, put an arm around his waist and pulled Dale into his lap, wrapping him up, phone and all, which was most of what he needed.

“What are you all doing?”

“I’ve been sorting rooms. Gerry and Ash called, they’re arriving tomorrow-” Paul said it briskly. They weren’t in the habit of tiptoeing around anything with Dale, it never helped, and Flynn caught on at about the same time he felt Dale stiffen and sheer ice enter his tone.

“They weren’t due until Friday. So they’ve had to change their arrangements and leave work early to help out because I’m keeping Flynn out of action when the whole ranch is under snow and we have stock in need of-”

And there we go. People changing plans because of you; being the cause of more work and inconvenience; feeling helpless, feeling a burden; … yep, that was all the rest of his major buttons now pushed. That ended any chance of helping him down off this ledge gently. Well if they were going to get to this sooner or later, sooner was better.

“We’ll call you back.” Flynn said to the phone and turned it off. He tossed it out of reach and rolled Dale briskly over on one hip towards him on his lap, clamping him strongly enough around the shoulders to be sure his head was upright, against his shoulder and there was no risk of jarring him. With the other hand he stripped Dale’s shorts down and Dale yelped and started to squirm at the first few swats he landed accurately and soundly to his bare behind.

“Ok! Flynn ok, I’ll stop!”

He sounded penitent and not at all surprised, which said a lot. That would have been enough for Riley. Dale, when you needed to change his gears, needed pushing hard enough to be able to let go of whatever he was currently chewing on and to focus on you instead, and since he didn’t plan on needing to do this again tonight, Flynn swatted him sharply enough in the right places to ensure that Dale’s squirming got a whole lot more animated and his voice slipped rapidly to wholehearted sincerity.

Flynn – I’m sorry, I’ll stop, I swear I’ll stop, I’m sorry-”

“What do I expect of you?” Flynn demanded, not letting him move. The answer came immediately and with an attitude more or less jumping up and down with a sign saying ‘would you please look how good I am’.

“To work on staying calm.”

“And if you need help?”

“Talk about it. Accept help to calm down and stay connected.”

“So?”

Dale’s hands were clutching his shirt front, his voice was shaky but a whole lot more real and he said it immediately, “I hate that I’m making more work for the others.”

“I know you do.” Flynn said just as bluntly. “Why?”

“We both know why,” Dale broke off, yelping as Flynn swatted him again, soundly, “Flynn! I know. I know where it comes from, I know why. It’s a belief that it isn’t safe to be bloody useless and be causing them a hell of a lot more work.”

“Is it true?”

“No. Because they’ll be fine and I’m not personally responsible for the ranch.” Dale’s forehead pressed hard against his chest, his voice was muffled. “Because we cover for each other, and I know. I know the sky won’t fall if I let them. I know it’s stupid, I just hate doing it. This was not what was supposed to happen. We are not supposed to be pissing around in Iowa when there are things I need to be doing, when it’s messing up everyone else’s plans.”

“Yes.” Flynn agreed quietly. “Your plans too. This is not what you expected. Which means?”

Dale sighed, but his voice was quieter. “I don’t have the control over this and I don’t appreciate it. I don’t want to be here. Which is also ridiculous because it is what it is, and we have to make the best of it. And I need to stay calm and not let this get to me because it doesn’t help. And I could be trying harder. I’m sorry.”

“And it’s frustrating, and disorienting and very alarming when you can’t see what’s going on.” Flynn said quietly in his ear. “It’s a hell of a shock.”

“Actually no, that part’s not…” Dale shrugged, not sure of how to find the words. “It’s temporary, it’s annoying, that’s all. The part really bugging me is the time wasting when there’s things to do. I know that’s ridiculous.”

“No, not at all. I know you want to go home. What are we going to do about it?”

Dale sighed. “I need to stop fixating and go with it.”

“No, you just need to work on staying calm. That was all I asked you to do.” Flynn ran a hand down his back. “I know it’s not easy, I’m here and I’ll give you all the help you need, but it’s going to happen, kid.”

“Because you say so.”

That was never sass with him. Dale was giving himself permission to give in, to give up that burden and let him lead, and Flynn didn’t misunderstand it.

“You’re right. Repeat after me, ‘calm is a choice I’m making to allow my body to heal’.”

Riley would have rolled his eyes, huffed, would have had to show some resistance. Dale simply said it after him. Soberly and sincerely.

“Calm is a choice I’m making to allow my body to heal.”

“Good.” Flynn lifted him over to the bed. “Get under the covers. I want to hear that ten times.”

Dale slid under the covers and turned over into his arms, and Flynn held him closely, hearing him repeat the mantra quietly, ten times in steady succession.

The landlady knocked on the door not long after he was done. She had a large tray on which was set another smaller tray covered with finger sized foods, all dry and neat to eat, and Flynn saw at one glance the thought she’d put behind it for someone with no vision.

“Thank you, how very kind of you. That’s ideal.”

“If you need anything else, let me know.” The landlady took two bottles of juice from under her arm and handed them to him. “Goodnight, sleep well.”

Flynn heeled the door closed behind him and put the tray down on the bed between them, guiding Dale’s hand to it. “This is basically appetisers. Pepper, cucumber and tomatoes here, lettuce here. This is cheese, pepper jack, brie, sharp cheddar here and blue cheese. These are meatballs, and these are beef and horseradish roll slices.”

And light, fresh things that he usually liked and preferred to eat, and a tray large enough that he didn’t need to worry about dropping things. Dale stretched out on his side with Flynn and the two of them picked through the contents of the tray. He ate quite well. The difference to lunchtime was noticeable, and it wasn’t the tension of trying, it was the genuine quiet and ease in his body of having let go. They were nearly done when Flynn’s cell phone rang. Flynn picked it up, glanced at the number and handed it to Dale.

“It’s home. Looks like Paul got tired of waiting.”

Dale lay back, finding the speaker button without effort. “Hey. I’m sorry, we were eating.”

Riley’s voice answered, cheerful and somewhat indignant.

“Flynn didn’t spank you did he? You get a pass, you’re injured. Make sure he knows that.”

“You can try telling him if you like. It didn’t work for me.”

“Flynn!” Riley sounded accusing. “Tea and chocolate! Sympathy! What is wrong with you?”

“I’ve got it covered halfpint.” Flynn lifted the tray down to the floor and leaned back into the pillows beside Dale, pulling Dale over to lay against him. “What did you do today?”

“Dug out the troughs for fun. And then because I nearly froze to death doing that, I got stuck in the attic cleaning out a room.”

“Is the snow any deeper?”

“About two feet now.”

“And how many snowmen do we have?”

“Only one, it’s not great snow for building with. Any improvement on the vision?”

Flynn saw Dale hesitate, torn between wanting to be truthful and not wanting to scare or upset him. He answered for Dale, calmly.

“Not yet. We’re working on it. He slept most of the drive today, and he’s in bed now.”

“And nothing else is wrong?”

“No. No headache, his balance is good, his memory is good. He’s all right halfpint. All ok.”

“Good.” Riley said firmly. “Milk it, Dale. Milk it. Paul wants the phone.”

“Then hide it.” Dale said, “In the snow somewhere.”

Riley laughed. “Next time, maybe?”

“You’re no help.”

“Only because I had him by the back of the jeans.” Paul was laughing too. Somewhere in a kitchen in Wyoming the two of them were wrestling. “I can hear you’re feeling better.”

Dale sighed but his voice was sincere. “I’m sorry about snarling at you earlier. It’s hasn’t been the best day.”

“I bet it hasn’t. I know it’s hard. This is only temporary sweetheart. It will pass.”

“In about four days of road travel.” Dale said heavily. “Which I’m not stressing about, honest. Please would you tell Ash and Gerry thank you for stepping up and helping? I hope their plans weren’t spoiled.”

“Nothing is spoiled hon, stop it.” Paul said very firmly. “Gerry’s always up for any reason to get more days here, and they wanted to help. That’s what we do, we help each other out. So let them help you. Don’t worry about us or anything here, you’re going to be home soon and we have it covered.”







 

*







Allowed out of bed for a bath, which Flynn supervised closely from start to finish, they went to bed early. And to Flynn, that meant in bed, lights out, no talking, which annoyingly meant Dale was asleep almost immediately. He stirred at some point during the night, aware of children’s voices. Chattering, too far away to make out the words, but there were several of them. He raised his head for a moment, listening. It faded away as soon as he focused on it.

The sounds of the guesthouse were very different to the ranch. The rumble of the road traffic, the sound of someone’s tv far away on another floor. The rattle of pipes in the walls as the ancient heating system worked. Dale felt for the bed rail, starting to slide himself very gently out of bed not to disturb Flynn. It didn’t work. He felt Flynn reach for the bed side light and snap it on almost the second he moved.

“Need any help?”

Dale blinked, startled. Flynn put a hand out to touch his face.

“It’s ok. Do you know where we are?”

“You’re right. There’s a lot of chintz.”

It took only a second for Flynn to realise what he meant. “You can see it?”

Dale reached for and found Flynn in the blur.

“It’s blurry – very blurry – but yes, I can see outlines. And colour blocks. That’s definitely better.”









21st December







            It was about the same by breakfast time, in the even chintzier dining room downstairs. Seated at a blurred brown table with a blur of objects on the table, with calm firmly and virtuously on his mind, Dale ate toast and fruit rather than brave anything involving a knife and fork. They set out on the road by nine, and Flynn turned west out of town. Driving without being able to make sense of images at speed was not a pleasant experience. After a few minutes of trying, Dale returned to the dark glasses and kept his eyes closed. Flynn wasn’t encouraging chat either. Something about resting. With nothing to look at and no possibility of talking, Dale surrendered and dozed some more through the morning. It was about three hours before Flynn put a hand over to his knee and roused him.

“This is Council Bluffs. Isn’t this the official trail jumping on point?”

“It’s one of them. One of the big ones.” Dale straightened up in his seat, stretching. The museum in Jackson held plenty of information on the trail, some of which were in their archive documents he’d spent some time poring over on spare afternoons, and this was a place he’d read about. “This was a big supply town. And the gathering point.”

“For what? Wagon trains collecting?”

“Yes, but mostly they were wintering here or gathering waiting. Until the grass was long enough to feed stock, they couldn’t start out on the trail or the animals starved on the way. What does it look like?”

Flynn made a non committal sound. “I hate to tell you kid; it looks most like any other city around here. And frosty.”

Dale had felt and heard the frost being scraped from the car this morning before they set out; it was a crisp, sharp day although a bright one.

“This is the main street by the look of it,” Flynn was slowing and a moment later Dale felt the car being parked. “The shop fronts here look a lot like Jackson. Big, square, lots of canopies. Want to walk up the street and find something to eat?”

“You’re actually going to let me walk somewhere?”

“I might if you watch that mouth.” Flynn leaned over him, unfastening his seat belt. “Stay there and wait for me; your door opens out onto the road and it’s busy.”

The vague shape and colour of cars passing by was visible as Flynn guided him around their car to the sidewalk. More vague shapes of people were distinguishable in the blur, as was the general outline of shops. Flynn helped him into his coat and put a hand through his arm, walking slower than he usually did, and Dale was aware Flynn had positioned him so that he walked between the shop fronts and walls and Flynn, sheltered from the people passing them by.

A large green canopy and the smell of coffee, a larger red blur and the shine of sun off a shop window- and abruptly Dale saw Sarah through the blur, burst out of the air ahead of him and run up the street. It was a skipping, dancing run, her excitement whirled around her, and the blur and the coffee smell was gone. Dale froze, unable to help it. Flynn’s arm closed around his waist, his voice was calm and even, which didn’t go with the worry Dale could feel pouring off him. “All right. It’s all right. What’s happening?”

But the street was gone. There was mud. Thick, brown, deep mud. Maybe twelve feet wide and stretching all the way through the town to where the open grass land started. Grass covered the far side of the road and the grass was dotted thickly with tents and wagons and carts. Small fires smoked near the wagons, the smell of wood smoke, bacon and coffee hung in the air – a harsher, sharper coffee than from the coffee shops – and a line of wooden fronted shops stood on their right, behind a wooden veranda sheltering people from the muddy road. Children sat on the edge of it, their bare feet swinging. Wagons were outside the stores, a long line of wagons, and people were heaving sacks and barrels into them. More carts and wagons made their heavy way through the mud, pulled by teams of oxen. In one uncanopied wagon, a man sat in a chair on the wagon bed while a barber cut his hair under a painted sign. People splashed through the mud to the stores across the street, weaving in between the wagons.

“Dale.”

“Sorry. It’s just Sarah. Sarah’s here.” Dale found his breath and began to walk again, slowly, feeling Flynn keep pace with him. It was shockingly, wonderfully clear, as if the blur in his physical vision had removed all distraction from – whatever the heck it was happened neurologically when What type images arrived. They were walking through the mud at the side of the road, although Dale couldn’t feel anything but the sidewalk beneath his feet. “….Her group kitted out their wagons here.” He found himself saying aloud as he made sense of it. “There are… Flynn there’s rows of them. She saw more than twenty. They’re lined up by the stores, taking on supplies. Five months of supplies, the average family took on a ton – the mud’s thick. No one’s going out onto the prairie yet, they’re all camping. Wintering here. Hundreds of them. It’s less a town than - a huge camping ground and the store fronts, not much else.”

Flynn guided him sideways, there was an iron framed chair on the sidewalk and a table in front of it. Dale took a seat gratefully, since the images weren’t slowing and it was hard to look away. The noise of the old town was louder than the rattle of traffic in the modern one. Many voices. Singing, somewhere off by the fires and the tents. Children playing. Animals, dogs barking, the lowing of cattle, the rattle of wagons and carts and somewhere the ringing of a hammer on an anvil. The sense of space – the wide open land around the shops – reminded Dale sharply and acutely of home. It was something Sarah and he had in common, something they both loved, and that was why she wanted for him to share it. Not with any distress or need, just please look? She wanted it so much, she was trying with all her might, with all the energy she had. She wanted that attention from him so strongly that like that moment he’d spent crouching on the dock in Wisconsin with her, Dale put everything else aside and focused on her entirely.

I’m here, I’m listening, go ahead. Show me. Tell me. 

Sarah reached one of the wagons and put a hand on it, looking across at him with pride. Her wagon. The seven that belonged to her were all lined up, but this, this one was the one they had slept in every night on the long way from the lakeside hamlet. This was the one she’d ridden in. The wagon was filling up now. Barrels and sacks were taking up every available space, tightly packed in, and the wagon was only long enough for Papa to lay down twice over, and wide enough that if she stretched out she could touch one side with her hands and one side with her toes. The space where their beds had been was rapidly getting crowded and their feather beds and blankets had been tightly rolled up out of the way. Mud was all over her boots, thick and oozing and mama hated it. She’d carried Sarah’s little brother, and she would have carried Sarah too but Sarah jumped down into the mud before mama could say wait, and once she was muddy there was no sense being carried any more.

The mud was glorious.

Someone brought them hot chocolate. Dale held the hot mug between his hands, vaguely aware that somewhere his hands and feet were cold, although it was a sunny spring day on the busy street he was watching with fascination. Sarah walked along the wooden veranda towards him. Small fenced paddocks marked out a few homesteads beyond the stores. Most of them were full with mules, oxen, donkeys and horses. Log cabins were ranged around a few rough streets, holding maybe ninety buildings in all. This was Kanesville. It wasn’t called Council Bluffs yet; now it was Kanesville, Sarah was clear about that, and this was a Mormon town with a post office where mama sent letters back to Grandma.

Boots. Sarah, who was always barefoot whenever Dale had seen her, held out a foot and indicated her little black laced boots to him, thick with mud. The significance of them, Dale wasn’t sure of, but he nodded grave acceptance of the fact of them as something she wanted him to acknowledge. David was walking slowly along the veranda some way behind her.

Dale looked over Sarah’s head to him in surprise. There was something slightly off kilter about the light and the speed of movement of the world around him, as if he was walking through a picture. David was more real than it was, more solid. He met Dale’s eye and Dale saw the flash of a grin, something twinkling in his face as if this was one enormous joke. Sarah grinned back at him, skipping to take his hand. David held it, looking down into her face- and abruptly a little boy ran along the veranda towards them. He was booted too, maybe a little younger than Sarah, although his face lit up at the sight of her, and he hit her arm with enthusiastic if clumsy welcome as he reached her, hopping alongside her. He was missing a front tooth, his grin at Dale was wide and his hands, his knees and his face were as muddy as his feet.  

Used to the sense of tension or jarring around someone ‘stuck’, Dale searched the child’s face with confusion. This kid was perfectly happy. His ease about being here was as lively as Sarah’s, and like her, he was a visitor. Which made David’s presence still more confusing. If nothing needed to be done for this child, what was he doing here? And then David stepped out of the picture, the muddy street vanished, and the blur of a frosty grey sidewalk dotted with people filled Dale’s vision again.

Flynn’s hand was over his. Dale turned his own hand over and gripped it, feeling Flynn’s fingers wrap around and squeeze.

“What was that?”

“Sarah. And David with another child. I have no idea why.”

“Is the child stuck?”

“No.” And everything in Dale’s gut rebelled at the thought of a child being stuck anywhere. “No, he was fine. A little boy, about Sarah’s age.”

“Another pioneer child?”

“I think so. I think Sarah knew him. She was pleased to see him.”

That was something of an understatement. He could still feel her delight.

“Was he from their train?”

The odd automatic sensations that came with thinking about these kind of things were often very swift to come, and Dale shook his head before he’d consciously realised it. There was a sense of – detachment, enough to clue him in.

“No, I don’t think so. Just that he was around here when she was.”

“What do you want to do about it?”

Flynn was familiar with this; they all were. Dale thought about, half of him focused on the need to be calm, to not move around too much, and the other half, if he was honest, straining at the leash with a whole lot of things to think about.

“I want to see if I can find him, please. Or find whatever it is they want to show me.”

Although it’s not as if I’m going to be able to see it.

But Sarah was of the ranch. He had a responsibility, and it wasn’t reserved just for when he was having good days. Apparently Sarah and David didn’t agree that a lack of clear vision rendered him useless.

Although as Jas made clear, you never had a lack of things to do. You were just annoyed that what you needed to do wasn’t the same as you had planned. 

“Finish your hot chocolate.” Flynn put the mug against his hand. It was still hot, hot enough to ward off some of the frost in the air. Dale drained it and got up, feeling Flynn’s arm slip through his.

“Which way?”

Dale waited, consciously letting his shoulders drop, his body relax, his mind empty – and the nudge at his attention was almost immediate, even without being able to see much of anything.

“That way. Over there.”

Flynn guided them across the road, weaving through the traffic. “There’s a clock tower about twenty feet ahead of us to the left. Directly in front is a car lot.”

Yes, well what was here now often made little difference to Whats. Right now he had some insight into what that was like. Dale let Flynn guide them over the dropped kerbs at the mouth of the car lot, keeping his mind clear with an effort. The pull was forward, to the right. Opposite what had been that bank of wooden stores, when this area here was filled with tents and small fires. He knew he was right when Sarah’s images began to flow again.

Papa had bought the oxen here. Six of them for each wagon, the big, slow, lumbering beasts had to take the now heavily laden wagons a long way over hard ground, so from here their horses got to walk while the oxen did the work. And two more oxen were bought for every two wagons in their party, to rotate and rest them and to be there in case any one of the team foundered on the journey. Papa had thought this out for months, talking for hours at night, with her uncles as they looked at maps and wrote lists. Some wagons were supplying up with only two ox and Papa shook his head at them. Overworking their beasts with no back up would mean a wagon and a family stranded when they were on the trail. But the inexperienced wagoners were everywhere, people who’d never driven a team or even a horse and cart. They didn’t know how to yoke their beasts or handle reins, and they drove their wagons into trees and tipped them over, and many of their wagons were cluttered high with furniture and stoves and all the things mama and papa had left behind in the hamlet by the lake. Their oxen had to get their wagon up hills so steep it would take ropes to help them, and roll them over the soft, thick dirt that lay beyond Nebraska. Just the food supplies and the wagon by itself were weight enough.

Children ran wild here. Mama looked with disapproval at the barefoot, wild haired, mud stained ones who ran in between the fires and who sat on the wooden porches with their legs dangling by the stores to watch the wagons loading up. Mama brushed Sarah’s hair twice a day and kept her plaits neatly tied, but she was busy with helping load the wagons and cleaning clothes and helping Aunt May cook dinner for all of them, and there were children everywhere to play with, and it was a wonderful town.

The boy and Sarah were sitting on the fence of one of the big corrals. It was crowded with the stock waiting to pull the wagons. A party of men from the town had ridden out a few days ago out onto the trail and were due back today to confirm whether grass was long enough all the way for wagons to head out. The town was full to bursting with people waiting. Large meetings went on around fires among the wagons where contracts were signed and rules shared out amongst the grown ups. One of those meetings was going on right now, over the road around a big wagon where a man in a black suit was shouting over the bellow of cattle and the chatter of voices to the men and women gathered around him. Most people were listening to him and paying small mind to two children sitting on the fence, scratching the backs and ears of whichever of the stock leaned against them.

One of the mules was chewing on the gate pin.

Snickers being a beggar for that, and the gate pins at Falls Chance being difficult ones to thwart him and others of the horses who had a Machiavellian knack for opening doors and gates, Dale watched the mule lip slowly and strategically, working the pin out of its socket. The boy and Sarah were watching, captivated. Inch by inch by inch, the mule patiently lipped it out, working its long tongue and soft mouth on the iron, until the pin dropped out and with a firm nudge of its head, the mule opened the gate.

None of the grown ups saw. With delight, the little boy stood up on the fence to see better as the mule strolled out of the paddock. It was followed by several other mules. And some of the cattle. Still no one noticed. The animals were straying out into the road now. The little boy on the fence took a cautious look at the grown ups around the wagon and then discreetly flapped his shirt at the cattle nearest them to get them moving. The cattle startled and having looked up from their grazing, trotted through the open gate after their peers until the big pen was empty. By the time the first of the grown ups noticed the wandering animals, they were everywhere. All over the road, stirring up the mud. Strolling up the hill towards the log cabins, several trotting towards the freedom of the open prairie beyond the road, and some straying between the fires and the tents on the grass. The road was suddenly full of grown ups, shooing and whistling and in the case of some of the women, screeching and running away from oxen following them up the street. On a bright April afternoon it was a glorious, noisy muddle, and the children on the fence watched it with deep appreciation.

The little boy on the fence met Dale’s eye with a wide, gap toothed grin. Dale crouched slowly down as he hopped off, bringing their heads to the same height. His familiarity with children – any children – was very low indeed. They were not a species he knew anything about. But the child felt around on the ground for a stone and Dale tipped his head to watch what the child scrawled in the mud beneath the fence rail in wobbly but clear letters. Clay. He beamed at Dale when he was done.

“Clay.” Dale repeated. “That’s your name?”

The beam got wider. Clay. Sarah, still perched up on the fence, gave him a nod of great satisfaction.





*





You got used to watching him do this.

It reminded Flynn of watching him listening in the ANZ meeting back at the shipyard. Quiet in body and face, his whole attention focused, taking in every detail. Even if whatever it was he was absorbing wasn’t necessarily in this time or place.

Flynn dug his hands in his pockets, standing to block the wind and the gaze of passers by from him as Dale apparently inspected the Council Bluffs guttering. With that intent expression on his face, the fact that he made a sweater, jacket and jeans look like a crisp and official uniform and the air he carried of knowing exactly what he was doing and why, no one was going to challenge him. He’d spent an entire childhood doing more or less what he wanted by looking like this; without a competent Top in the vicinity he usually got away with it.

He rose slowly, putting a hand out to the wall for balance, and Flynn put a hand through his arm.

“Done?”

“…… it seems so.” He sounded quizzical rather than convinced. Flynn drew him closer as the wind coming down the street was sharp.

“Come on. There’s a restaurant across the street, let’s get a meal and warm up.”

They were seated in the window of the restaurant, looking out at the street, and from watching Dale’s eyes and the slightly chaotic movement of them that suggested they weren’t teaming too well in processing what he saw yet, he wasn’t making out much beyond the glass. Flynn hung both their coats out of the way and put a hand over his, rubbing to get some warmth back into it.

“How hungry are you? This place is mostly Italian American, they’ll do plenty of finger foods.”

“Yes.” That was the patented, Aden, I am paying attention to you along with multiple other things I am processing and will get back to you tone. Flynn gripped his hand firmly.

“Hey.”

“Yes. Sorry.” Dale blinked and more or less looked towards his face. “Italian American. Sounds fine.”

Flynn ordered tea, cheese sticks, onion rings, bread and fries as the easiest hot food for him to handle that couldn’t be spilled or dropped in a way that would upset him in public, much as Paul would have cringed at the selection, thanked the slightly bemused waiter and took a firmer hold on Dale’s hand.

“What happened? Did you find this other child?”

“Yes. Clay. His name is Clay.”

“What did he want you to see?”

Dale still sounded faintly quizzical, the data still processing. “He and Sarah let the stock out of the pen. Not quite intentionally, a mule chewed the gate pin loose the way Snickers does. They didn’t stop him and they didn’t sound the alarm, they were having too much fun watching the animals get all over the road. Clay encouraged a couple that were slow to get moving. There were thirty cattle and nine mules loose in the street before anyone noticed.”

“And?”

“Exactly.” Dale said rather wryly. “There’s no ‘and’. That was it.”

“And you felt done?” That was often the main guidance they had; the same sense of ‘done’ Dale needed to be able to let anything go.

“Yes. I suppose I know - it’s often not anything objectively significant.” Dale sounded quietly compassionate about it. “This seems even less objectively significant than usual, but to a six year old – that was probably important.”

“Which he wanted to show you.”

“Yes. Although mostly it was Sarah who wanted me to see it. I have no idea why.”

“It’s a familiar phrase with small children: look at me.”

“Yes.” From Dale’s tone that wasn’t a mild agreement but a confirmation that he too had witnessed this. He actively studied people, he observed and learned in the same way he read books, a very intentional pursuit of the knowledge he felt he lacked. “But David was here earlier. I usually only see him in situations like this if someone is stuck, but there’s no – no sensation of that.”

It was the same intensity of thought he had had been giving to Argeles and Akhiro forty eight hours ago, the same commitment to understanding something that interested him, and Flynn welcomed it. It was a genuine distraction for him, something to think about other than fear and frustration.

“Was David worried?” It was something Flynn often said to him, quite casually, as a measure of how Dale felt about whatever was happening and to get Dale to reflect on how seriously he felt he needed to take it. Dale answered at once, drily and without needing to think about it.

“Not at all. He appeared to be finding the whole thing quite amusing. But then he would. He was there while the scan was happening at the hospital.” He added a little too lightly in a way that said I’m honestly not crazed. “That was about the worst moment of the whole day, I hated them not letting you in. He held my hand.”

“It was one of the worst moments on my side of the door too.” Touched, Flynn squeezed his hand. These kind of admissions still weren’t easy for Dale, he didn’t make them freely. “I’m glad he could be with you. What did he say?”

“Not to be afraid. That I wasn’t badly hurt, it seemed worse than it was.”

That was a relief to hear. And likely some of why Dale seemed so unconcerned about his sight.

David, I sincerely hope you’re right.









            They drove on to Kearney that afternoon. There was, as Flynn knew from the time Dale spent in the museum at Jackson, no one specific path for the Oregon trail. Wagons had followed the same general direction but every group found their own path, looking for any even slightly easier ground, and when the trail was busy there could be wagons travelling steadily several miles abreast. This area had been crowded in its heyday. Most of the settlements they passed hadn’t been here at the time Dale’s little Sarah passed through. This had been open land in her day, nothing but the green grass and flat prairie. The roads were quiet and there still wasn’t much to see on the long, grey, two lane road other than the wide expanse of open land on either side, punctuated by the lone farm houses. The frost was melted off the prairie, and as yet, while the roads were well gritted, they hadn’t yet seen snow. Somewhere to the left of them, the Platte river wound; the river the wagon trails had followed and depended on through this territory. Lakes and then the river itself began to punctuate the endless green visible from the road as they approached Kearney. Caroline had issued them with directions to a bed and breakfast on the very edge of the town, near to the road and easy to find.

The Busch Bed and Breakfast had a large sign outside of a fairly new looking, wood board fronted inn with painted signs of beer tankers and barrels. It was five pm and dusk was drawing in fast as Flynn parked in the surprisingly empty small lot outside, collected their overnight bag and guided Dale with him to the front door. They were greeted at the reception desk by a large, broad, very cheerful man in a pink shirt, with a thick beard and a broad German accent, the Mr Busch himself, who got Flynn to sign in the equally large and ornate visitors register as if he’d been waiting all his life for their signatures. He guided them up a wooden stairway when they were done.

The whole place was wood. The stairs. The floor. The ceiling. Wood panelling was a strong theme, interrupted only at intervals by small paintings of forests as if to affirm where all the panelling came from. A heavily carved wooden door was thrown open on the first floor and Flynn, steadying Dale who was making his way through this fretwork explosion without being able to see much of it, blinked slightly at the room displayed to them.

“…. Thank you.” He said to their host, who gave him a wide smile that reminded Flynn inexorably of Bear.

“You’re welcome. Be comfortable. Have a rest and refresh and I’ll have dinner downstairs ready for you in an hour. Your Miss Caroline made the arrangements.”

He thumped his way downstairs with a bouncing tread, and Flynn gingerly shut the carved door.

“Is there as much wood as I think there is?” Dale said cautiously. Flynn put their night bag down, keeping hold of his arm.

“No, there’s a lot more. You can tell Caroline I do not appreciate her sense of humour.”

“Why?” Dale gingerly made his way across the wooden floorboards towards the largest structure dominating the room. “I can see the shape of this, but…oh.”

His hands found the ladder and the bedding beyond.

“Yes, oh.” Flynn said darkly. “You can find the gadget on that bloody phone and take a picture to prove to Riley what that monstrosity is, and that we have to sleep in it.”

“What is it?” Dale’s hands walked the edges of it and he began to laugh. “It’s a beer barrel? There’s seriously a bed inside a beer barrel.”

“Yes, it’s a giant barrel. On its side. With a ladder. And you wake me tonight if you want to put so much as a foot out of bed so I know you haven’t broken your neck on this ridiculous object.”

“Is there a bathroom?”

“Here.” Flynn opened the door, and leaned back against the doorframe, swearing. “Guess what the bloody bath is?”

“Another barrel?”

“Yes. With beer draft handle taps. No shower, just the barrel. There has to be a holiday inn or a normal motel somewhere around here-”

“This is fine. It’s warm, it’s a bed and a bathroom, we’ll be gone in the morning.” Dale’s hands found him and Dale’s arms wrapped around his waist. “We can survive one night.”

“There are bloody Christmas trees on the towels.”

Dale started to laugh again. “We can even survive that.”

“If he makes his clients bath in beer, we’re leaving.” Flynn said shortly.

There were Christmas trees on the thick green blankets adorning the bed inside the barrel and covering the several large carved wooden chairs, which looked as if they’d escaped from a Santa’s grotto somewhere. Mr Busch obviously enjoyed Christmas. A small but real and heavily decorated Christmas tree also stood in the corner of the room. Dale paused beside that when he found it and Flynn saw him breathing in the pine scent.

Flynn had spent a few minutes in a store on the street at Council Bluffs picking up a few essentials since they had neither planned nor packet to be away from home so long, and they both changed into the fresh underwear, jeans, shirts and fleece sweaters Flynn had picked up as warmest and softest for Dale to travel in. Something achieved without fuss, without complication and without aisles of bloody complicated designs and colours, as was perfectly possible to do in a sensible store, despite the store having had the compulsory baubles, lights and sound track playing carols.

The dining room was predictably wood panelled with wooden benches and tables. Only one table was set by the crackling open fire covered in greenery, and Mr Busch was laying out plates alongside a slender, older man also in a pink shirt who gave Flynn a warm, kindly smile and held out a hand to shake.  

“Hello, I’m Stefan. You are Flynn? And this must be Dale. We were sorry to hear of your troubles, have you driven far today?”

“We set out from Fort Dodge this morning. About five hours on the road all told.” Flynn watched the man gently take Dale’s hand to shake it, with a sensitivity in the gesture he appreciated. “We were surprised you weren’t busier so near the holiday.”

“We’re not officially open.” Stefan draped an arm around Mr Busch’s large hips, and Flynn saw then why they were being made so welcome. “It’s usually quiet around here for the winter and we like the place to ourselves over the holiday, but when we heard your situation we were glad to have you.”

“It’s very kind of you.” From Dale’s tone he’d also clocked that they were being hosted by another gay couple, and that this was a personal gesture from one couple to another. “We were impressed by how unusual our room was.”

“That’s Jorg.” Stefan said with affection, giving his larger partner a warm look. “He does all the interiors and I do the cooking, I’m much better at that. I hope you don’t mind joining us for our evening meal, it seemed friendlier than bringing something up to your room?”

And these two were keen for the company.

“We’d be delighted.” Flynn said frankly. “A home cooked meal and good company is something we’ve been short of and missing ever since we went out to Wisconsin. Can I help at all?”

“If you can carry a few dishes through, yes please.” Stefan patted Jorg’s hip. “Drinks. Dale, what can we get you? Jorg stocks all kinds of beers, there’s wine if you’d rather, or if you’re having to be careful of drinking there’s juice, tea, coffee?”

“Actually I’d love a cup of tea.” Dale said apologetically. “With milk if I may? I’ve been craving one all day.”

That wasn’t a polite response, it was a genuine one the way Dale showed warmth to any friend or neighbour of theirs and Flynn saw Jorg’s smile light up in response. 

“Yes of course! British tea, coming up. Come tell me how you like it.”

Stefan hadn’t been exaggerating when he said he was good at cooking. They loaded the table with dishes, from roasted pork with dumplings to a dish of pickled red cabbage with apple and another of noodles in what looked like a thick cheese sauce and smelled delicious. It was piping hot, it truly was a real family meal. Flynn put a guarding hand over Dale’s as he began to fill Dale’s bowl for him.

“Mind the dishes.”

“Dale, I’m afraid it’s a bit on the drippy side,” Stefan said apologetically, “I did think about doing finger foods but it’s a cold day and we thought you’d need something substantial. I thickened the gravy which should slow it down a bit and there’s plenty of napkins beside you, help yourself and do whatever makes you comfortable.”

That explained why they had large and deep spaghetti bowls instead of plates, and it was a thoughtful gesture. So was the shredding of the roasted pork which avoided the need to cut slices, and the halved dumplings. Paul would like this man.

“Pork here, dumplings here, noodles here, cabbage here.” Flynn guided Dale’s spoon to each part of the bowl. “Can you see enough of it?”

“Outlines and colours. I’ll be fine thanks, it smells wonderful. We have had rather a lot of sandwiches and fast food since this happened.”

“May I ask what happened? Your corporation – ANZ – said there’d been an accident.” Stefan said gently. Dale made a very careful, deliberate attempt to find noodles. To ask a perfectionist to make his first stab at eating a wet meal with a knife and fork with very little vision in front of strangers was asking a great deal. Flynn discreetly put a hand over his, taking his fork and winding noodles around the prongs before he put the fork back into Dale’s hand. Dale took it gratefully, taking a cautious mouthful.

“We were at a meeting in a shipyard in Wisconsin, they had an explosion in their steel mill while we were viewing it and a fragment caught my head. It’s just a concussion but it’s caused us to take a rather…. diverted way home.”

“Do you have far left to go?” Jorg asked with his mouth full.

“Wyoming.” Flynn guided Dale to find and scoop some of the pork. “We’re taking it gently, probably a couple more days on the road. We’re ranchers. Used to more rural surroundings than this.”

“Well if you’re needing some rural comforts there’s a Christmas fair tonight, up at the fort.” Jorg said with enthusiasm. Dale lowered his fork.

The fort?”

“About half of it, what was saved and preserved.” Stefan told him. “You know your pioneer history?”

“I’m… slightly obsessive about it.” Dale admitted lightly. Stefan smiled.

“I suppose that makes this road trip a bit luckier for you? The fort’s usually closed outside of the summer, this is rare, but they’re having a Christmas fair tonight as a fundraiser. Jorg loves any Christmas events, and we’ve been part of the planning committee. We’re headed out there for about seven pm if you want to come along?”

Flynn saw Dale, who respected these boundaries in a different way to Riley who would quite frankly ask and just as good naturedly accept a no if need be, give him the space to make the decision without expression on his face. If you knew Dale, that careful lack of interest said a lot in itself.

“Dale would love that.” Flynn said to Stefan. “Thank you, yes please. We’ll take our car if that’s ok, we’re having to take things very easy at the moment so we may not stay long.”





           

            Christmas lights decorated the paths of the fort. Heavy black cannons stood on brick gun placements, and Flynn walked slowly with his hand through Dale’s arm to guide him. Jorg and Stefan were helping out with one of the stalls and had carried things up towards the area where the stalls were clustered and music was playing from speakers. Most of what was left here was earthworks. A wicker fenced area marked some of the fort, and several small low buildings had been reconstructed.

“Was this here in Sarah’s time?” Flynn asked as they walked towards one of them; a small post office. Dale shook his head.

“No. It was being built. Which puts a date on when she was here; 1848. The soldiers were constructing it. It became busy later, thousands of wagons passing through each season to resupply, and this was the only mail office out on the trail – although that came after Sarah’s time.”

“You can feel it?”

“I can hear bits of it. If I concentrate.”

He was relaxed, focused. Enjoying this, and that was why they were here, the difference in him to last night was considerable. He’d eaten well of a proper meal, currently he didn’t look tired, he was actively interested in this place, and while Flynn was keeping a close eye on the time, he thought a short stroll shouldn’t overtax him.

It wasn’t busy, but a steady stream of local were enjoying the stalls. Keeping close hold of Dale to avoid him being run over by free range kids, people with strollers and people incapable of looking where they were going, Flynn walked with him round the stands, murmuring a quiet description of what each held. Cakes; candles in varying shapes and sizes; bath bombs in alarming colours as if people actually wanted to get into a bath with a foaming salt cupcake never mind being prepared to pay for the privilege; a man in a Santa suit talking to highly nervous small children; a pancake stand which seemed an odd decision for a Christmas fair; and various stalls of decorations. Flynn paused by one, picking up one of the wooden ones to put gently into Dale’s hand. It was sticks, simple sticks tied with string to form a star, simple and rustic and rather appropriate to the place.

“Think Paul would like a couple of those on the tree?”

Dale smiled as he felt the shape. “Yes. That’s lovely.”

“We’ll have three of those stars please.” Flynn said to the woman behind the stall, and with a moment of reflection added several other items from the stall to the bag she was packing for them. As they walked away from the stall, Flynn put the bag into Dale’s hands. “Take a seat here for a moment and look at those? I’ll be right back, there’s a juice stand there.”

He was watching as he waited to be served at the stand, as Dale felt through the bag, drawing out first the tied bunch of cinnamon sticks and instinctively raising them to his face as he caught the scent. And then a ball, an orange studded with cloves. The feel and the scent of them had been heavy on the stall, it had reminded Flynn of watching Dale catch the scent of the pine tree at the bed and breakfast, and watching now as Dale ran a finger over the clove ball and breathed it in confirmed he’d been right. For Dale, enjoying Christmas was still a new thing, entirely based on being with them. Their traditions, the things they did together. It really mattered to Dale. He loved this season and how their family celebrated, and to miss the lights, the visuals around them was a serious loss for him. It raised a dark, grim fear that if this vision issue persisted then making things more multisensory in their daily lives was something they were going to have to get used to. It was hard. To look at him, the crisp darkness of his hair shadowed by the flickering Christmas lights, the intent expression in his face of high concentration that was there when he was tacking up a horse or standing in a board room, all of him totally absorbed in a way that always cut straight to Flynn’s heart…. Flynn took two of the paper cups and brought them across, taking a seat on the bench beside him a little stiffly.

“These bloody jeans are going in the bin when we get home. There’s no no give in them, they’d be useless for riding. Here. Mulled apple juice. It’s warm rather than hot.”

The music over the loud speakers switched to another carol. Dale sipped the juice, the clove ball in his hand.

“There are children playing by a campfire. About twenty feet to the right of us. They were camped here. They’ve pulled sticks out of the fire, they’re running around with them.”

“That sounds lethal.”

“They’re having fun.” Dale looked out into the darkness, his fingers running absently over the cloves. “Sarah’s with them. So is Clay.”





*





The children played with the smouldering, sparking sticks for a while. There was much jabbing at each other and laughing and sparks and ash flying up into the dark, clear sky. Sarah’s boots were dusty and battered, and neatly put to the side of the fire. She was playing bare foot on the grass. Her hair was plaited but coming free as if it hadn’t been brushed for a while. Weeks out on the trail, especially out here in the desert where the Platte river was thick and muddy, staying clean was getting to be harder than even the most determined family could handle. Mama had surrendered on washing their clothes days ago.

Supervision of children was very different out on the trail to at home. Adults were busy, all the time, constantly, with the effort of keeping the wagon moving, leading the animals, driving the wagons, keeping people fed. People in the group got sick, Mrs Armstrong was near constantly sick and Mr Armstrong was one of the ones they’d left under the trail in the graves the men dug and then drove the wagons over to hide the spot from looters and wolves. There were quite a lot of them. Sarah, like the other children, had seen the bones by the trail, or the flash of a plait emerging from the ground. She knew it meant another little girl like her, but it just Was. Like the rolling of the wagons and the endless bread and bacon; life just Was. Now Aunt May drove Mrs Armstrong’s wagon and Mama carried and fed their baby, wrapped in her shawl and tied to her body so she had her hands free to drive their wagon while Papa walked and led the oxen. They all walked. There was no room in the wagon for anything more than their supplies since they left Council Bluffs, and the oxen worked hard enough without having to pull passengers. Sarah and every other child old enough, walked with the adults beside the wagons. Besides, Papa’s rule was that they must never climb in or out of the wagon when it was moving. He’d talked with other wagon trains and heard the stories of children falling and being crushed under the wheels as they climbed, and he’d promised them the spanking of their lives if they ever tried it. But mostly if you were there for meals and bedtime, no one much cared what you did in between, and no one supervised. Mama still insisted on boots, and Sarah hated it. More than anything she longed to go barefoot all the time like the other children did on the prairie.

It was a childhood so absorbing and yet so completely foreign to Dale’s that it could have been a different planet, not just a different time and place. And yet here they were. Sarah paused and looked straight at him, direct into his eyes. Both of them from the ranch in Wyoming, both of them here together touching in this time and place.

David was watching the children play.

Dale saw him leaning against the fence, hands deep in his pockets and his collar turned up against the wind. Sarah walked across to him, and David offered her his hand, looking down at her as though he was searching her face for something. And then near him, suddenly Jesse was running on the grass with a burning stick in his hand. His name came in a rush to Dale along with the leap of Sarah’s heart at the sight of him, as familiarly noisy and untidy as he always was. Dark curly hair in his eyes, he was bashing his stick against anyone else’s in reach to make the sparks fly. Jesse always hit the hardest, ran the fastest and yelled the loudest of any child in their train. He bashed the stick hard against the fence as he passed it, and he jumped, his eyes going wide as the burning end of it caught on the fence post and broke off. It smoked for a second and then the woven fence burst into flame.

No child screamed. Any squeal would attract the attention of grownups whose patience for children was not high out here where they had so many demands on their time. Instead, rapidly, children gathered around the fence with their sticks, whacking at the stuck and smouldering stick end together until it fell to the ground. The fence still burned. Jesse ripped off his muddy shirt and ran to the water trough to soak it, and battered the wet fabric against the fence. With a hiss, the fire went out. The fence, somewhat charred, was no longer burning. Children scattered, giggling, abandoning the burning sticks in the fire, and a moment later no child was anywhere near the incriminating evidence. Jesse, happily shouldering back his wet and smoky shirt, scampered ahead of the others in search of something new to do.

He grinned at Dale as he passed them. A cheeky grin, with lively eyes above it. He was a little older than Sarah and Clay. Not by much, but he led the little posse across the grass. Clay too caught Dale’s eye with his gap-toothed beam. As the other children and the firelight faded away, Sarah, Jesse and Clay remained, running in and out of the blur of the stalls and peering over the edges of them.

Three of them. Now there were three.  

“Flynn,” he said conversationally, watching them, “We are knocking about an historical monument accompanied by three small children. I have no idea why.”

“Three?”

“Sarah and David just found another one. I have no idea what’s going on.”

“Did they know about the Pied Piper in Sarah’s time?”

“I have no idea, Tom’s the expert on fairy tales. I’d need to look it up. They seem… perfectly happy.”

Sarah appeared around the edge of the mulled apple juice stand and pointed at the machine crushing apples with her eyes wide. Dale nodded agreement to her that yes, it was remarkable. That was all she appeared to want.

On the way back to the car they paused by the blacksmiths where Flynn quietly described in his ear as two men worked on anvils by a fire, shoeing a particularly lovely Clysdale in a demonstration. The fire was the most visible thing in the blur. The outlines of people gathered around were also evident, and the general outline of the patient horse. Dale listened to the sound of the hammering and watched the fire leaping, and it was only after a while that he became aware of one small figure that was completely clear within the blur. The same way that Sarah, Clay and Jesse were.

Because that part I don’t see with my eyes.

It was, objectively, fascinating. It was a very lean little figure with red hair and heavy freckling over the face. Part of the freckling was a large birthmark running from the temple across the cheek to the nose. His eyes were large in the darkness and he was watching the fire. Maybe Sarah’s age.

No. No children stuck. Please, no children stuck here.

Determination mixing with concern Dale made his breath slow, his body relax and forced himself to let it flow rather than try to reach towards it. But there was none of the tension around the child that he associated with the stuck. The child was oriented in this time and place, watching what went on, not lost in whatever moment he was stuck on.

So he’s a visitor.

But a wary, timid visitor. Most visitors were confident, relaxed and at home in the places they went to. Not all, but most. Dale made himself relax further, concentrating on calm. The warmth of thought and the flow of peace, companionship, that tended to reach out to and soothe other people’s energy, and lend them strength. It made the child glance towards him.

Wary little eyes met his, and it reminded Dale of a fox. Something shy and wild, born to run.

David? Is he all right?

He often didn’t get an answer when he reached out to David directly. But he felt the response almost immediately. Yes. This child was ok. There was no need to free any spirit here.

But the child was still half hidden in the dark, alone, watching, and there was something wrong about that. Something that didn’t gel with the other children playing together out by the stalls.

Sarah?

Dale thought it as clearly as he could, bringing her strongly to mind. Making himself focus on the image of her. And almost instantly, somehow, he felt David’s energy join his and help in a way he only usually did for the ‘stuck’.

Sarah, can you hear me? Do you know this little one here?

Reid. The child’s name came to mind and Dale had no idea where it came from; David or the child himself.

Sarah?

It was a less a word he spoke in his head than a reaching for the sense of her. Whatever sense of each other they had that connected them. She was there. Her hair moving softly in the night breeze a little slower than everyone else’s around her, her feet bare, her expression thoughtful. She stood for a moment, looking at the little boy in the shadows, who looked back at her with open shock in his small face as though he couldn’t believe another child was here. Then she quite firmly went to take his hand and pulled him with her out of the corner. He was reluctant to come, he dug his heels in and pulled, but Sarah held onto his hand with both of hers with determination in her face. And he went with her.

In Dale’s experience, visitors simply flicked in and out of time and place. Wherever they wished to be they were, and when their interest shifted they moved on just as abruptly, as if they moved at the speed of thought. So when Sarah towed Reid out of the smithy Dale had no doubt, the little boy wasn’t feeling nearly as reluctant as he looked.

When Flynn walked him down to the car a few minutes later, there were now four children running around on the grass ahead of them, the little red headed boy still clutching Sarah’s hand.





             

Flynn muttered as he operated the beer draft taps for the bath, but it was, blessedly, large enough a bathing barrel to take the both of them together and it was surprisingly deep and very hot. Stefan had put a large thermos of tea with mugs and biscuits in their room since he and Jorg would stay late at the fort to help clear up after the fair. They lounged in the hot water, drank tea, and afterwards, as Flynn helped him dry his hair and change into night wear, Dale dialled the phone to call home.

It was answered promptly by a cheerful voice that announced, “Good evening and welcome to the madhouse, how may I help you?”

Music was playing in the background. Dale recognised the sounds of Stan Rogers and smiled, taking a seat on one of the overly carved chairs.

“Hi Gerry, it’s me.”

“Hello me!” Gerry’s voice raised to a yell over the music. “HEY. Can the Stan. It’s Dale, out in the wilds of – where are you darling? What is between Wisconsin and here?”

“Nebraska. Quite a lot of Nebraska.” The music turned down.

“Put it on conference.” Riley ordered in the back ground. “No, that button.”

“Well before we knew Dale, no one knew anything about conference calls and we never used them, and you live with the man not me-” Gerry stabbed at several buttons and the sound of the line changed as he found the right one. “There. Darling, you are live and accessible to the entire household, for better or for worse. I’m so sorry you’re having such a hellish time, how are you?”

“Where are you?” Riley demanded.

“Fort Kearney. We’re at around the half way mark.” Dale accepted the firm pat on the shoulder that said Flynn wanted him to get up and move to the bed. That took a moment of navigating the short wooden ladder and crawling across the wide, deep mattress that was…. inside the barrel. It was surprisingly comfortable. “We’re at a B&B tonight with a very sweet couple, who are making us sleep in a barrel.”

“You what?”

“Flynn took a photograph to prove it. It’s a giant beer barrel with a mattress in it.”

“And Flynn’s agreeing to sleep in that?” Gerry inquired. “Seriously?”

“It’s not like he has a lot of choice.” Flynn pointed out, crawling across the mattress and whacking his head audibly on the top of the barrel. Dale put a hand up to find his hair and rub it as Flynn lay down beside him.

“We had a bath in a beer barrel as well, it’s been interesting.”

“And what else have you been doing on top of this appalling perversion?” Gerry, from the sound of it, had dropped down onto a couch and the phone was on a table. Most likely the coffee table. “Ash and I arrived this afternoon, we’ve mostly been feeding bullocks since then since the tractor ignition declined to co operate and we had to drag the hay out with the shires. That was fun.”

“What’s wrong with the ignition?”

“Gerry, you had to tell them that?” Paul sounded exasperated. “Dale, Bear will sort it when he gets here tomorrow, don’t worry about it. We’re fine using the shires. There’s plenty of hands to help and most of them were playing in the snow as much as the shires were.”

“What’s at Fort Kearney?” Riley asked. “Is there still a fort?”

“Yes, we went to a Christmas fair there this evening with the couple running the B&B. The earthworks are left, a few recreated buildings like the post office.”

“Any Whats there?”

“Well Sarah’s here.”

“Is she?” Riley sounded surprised and pleased. “She’s still around with you?”

“She knows the territory. Her family travelled up to Council Bluffs, that’s was their nearest supply town and jumping on point for the trail.”

“You’ve seen Council Bluffs?” Ash’s voice asked in the background, sounding interested.

“Yes, we were there this morning. The main street still has the same shape. It was a wintering ground for wagons waiting to go out as the winter started. Wagons lined up in rows outside the stores, loading up – five months supplies had to go on each wagon.”

It was the kind of detail he could never resist adding in, this kind of thing fascinated him too much.

“What did they take?” Paul asked. “Bacon I suppose? Flour? I can’t imagine trying to stock for five months ahead with nothing else.”

“Sugar. Beans. Coffee. They walked. The children walked. There wasn’t room on the wagons once they were loaded, and the teams couldn’t pull extra weight.”

“You see them all on the western movies sitting up on the boxes at the front or on the tail board at the back,” Ash commented. “I’m guessing that isn’t accurate. Mind you, the wagons can’t have moved that fast, it must have been an easy pace to walk to.”

“Maybe two miles an hour? Well below normal walking pace.” Dale said pensively. “They covered twenty miles a day at most. We drove from Council Bluffs to Kearney in under three hours today. That would have taken them nine or ten days at best in the wagons, and we’re currently on the easy ground. From the fort onwards it got a lot harder. The desert starts beyond the fort.”

“So what was Sarah doing at Council Bluffs?” Riley asked. “Showing you where her wagon loaded up?”

“Yes, but she wasn’t that interested in that part. She was more interested in the oxen they bought to pull the wagons. Her father led or tied their horses to the wagons, there weren’t many horses around at all. All oxen, some mules. And there was a boy called Clay. He was about six. Sarah knew him. They were sitting on the fence by a corral where stock was waiting for the wagons to go out – they couldn’t start until spring was far enough along. Adults were listening to a trail leader who was talking through the contract the group were signing-”

“They signed contracts?” Gerry said, startled. “What about?”

“The terms under which they joined. The rules of the group. There’d be a leader of each group, and the order in which the wagons travelled was regulated, how they’d deal with law breakers, drinking, gambling, hunting. An agreement to follow the authority of the leader. I don’t think Sarah’s group signed one, they were a group of family and friends, they probably didn’t need it. But the adults were gathered around listening to a larger group negotiating and voting, and didn’t notice a mule was chewing out the gate pin, Snickers style.”

Riley, who spent the most time organising the corral gate to foil Snickers, laughed. “Did he do it?”

“Yes. The children sat on the fence, watched it all and didn’t say a word. Except Clay waved on a few of the oxen that needed encouraging to escape. There were animals all over the street before any adult noticed. And at Fort Kearney there was a boy called Jesse, a bit older than Sarah. The children were playing around the fire with smouldering sticks, they liked the sparks in the dark. No one was paying them much attention, the children were pretty much left to their own devices and they liked it that way. Except Jesse got over enthusiastic fighting a fence and set it on fire. The children put it out quick, no one noticed, but someone must have found a burned fence in the morning and wondered what had happened. And there was a child called Reid. With a large birth mark down his face, very shy.”

“Where was he from?”

“I don’t know. He was hiding at the fort, watching one of the blacksmith demonstrations. I think abandoned or orphaned children on the trail was something that often happened. Sarah’s family were looking after a baby from another wagon, the father died and the mother was ill. The groups travelling together probably absorbed children and anyone else left alone. But the forts were kind of a service station. People coming and going all the time through the season, I don’t know much track would have been kept of any waifs and strays getting stranded there.”

“How can you find out?” Riley asked him. Dale considered it.

“Possibly there are fort records. I don’t know. To be honest, I’m not sure Reid has any interest in that.”

“What is he interested in?”

“…..mostly, I think joining the other kids.”

“So you’ve got four What kids running around?” Riley said with amusement.     

“At the fort this evening, yes. We seem to be collecting them.”

“Why?” Luath sounded curious. “There’s usually a purpose, isn’t there?”

“Yes. Just often not something objectively – relevant.”

“People aren’t that straight forward.” Riley said to Luath. “It can be just plain ‘look at this’ with visitors. And these are kids, so it’s what matters to kids. That’s probably the part to figure out.”

“These are young kids.” Dale agreed. “Which I think matters too. Is Jasper there?”

Paul sounded gentle. “Sorry hon, he’s outside. Can I get him to call you later, or does Flynn want you to sleep?”

“Flynn wants him to sleep.” Flynn abstracted the phone from Dale. “That’s as much exercise and talking as he needs to handle today.”

“But tomorrow’s your quiet day.” Paul said.

“Quiet?” Dale said to Flynn, suspiciously.

“We’ll call you from Ash Hollow tomorrow.” Flynn said to the phone. “Sleep well, goodnight all.”

“Quiet?” Dale repeated.

“Quiet.” There was a click as Flynn turned the phone off. “I had Caroline plan in a rest day. Ash Hollow is only a couple of hours from here, so we’ll sleep in, do just the one short drive tomorrow and take some rest time.”

“We could be home by tomorrow evening if we just got on with it….” Dale said irritably. Flynn slid an arm underneath him, pulling him over.   

“Calm. We’re in no rush, we’re admiring the scenery and we’re taking the time to rest.”

Hence being in bed at eight thirty pm.

The job is to take it as it comes.

“Besides,” Flynn said in his ear. “Sarah seems to be enjoying this.”







22nd December





            On Flynn’s insistence they laid in bed much later than they usually would on the ranch, and since Stefan and Jorg also got up late due to their late evening at the fair, they shared breakfast together after nine in the dining room. The coffee and cakes were hot and good, and the chat, mostly about the fair and the local politics around it, was comfortable. After several days preventing a diplomatic incident with table thumping and threats, hearing about who snubbed who on the planning committee and who had then defriended who on Facebook was really quite soothing. They exchanged phone numbers and postal addresses when they left an hour later, with an invitation for Stefan and Jorg to stay at the ranch any time they were passing through Wyoming. Dale thought these two would be likely to take them up on it.

On the road out of Kearney, they almost immediately had to cross the Platte river. Sarah and her family’s wagons would have forded it somewhere near here, having carefully chosen their spot. As soon as Dale thought about it, Sarah showed him. The grownups had waded the river, leading the oxen, and the children had ridden the wagons across, relying on the carefully caulked wagon beds to float and protect the dry goods from the water. The tar barrel hung beneath the wagon and Papa checked and filled the gaps before he led the team down into the water. She sat on the driving board, clinging on with both hands, and watched their little cavalcade make its way across. The occasional wagon got stuck and had to be dug out and dragged free, but they sounded the river as being only four-foot-deep in the middle, and while it was a long, slow process they crossed without difficulty. Flynn described the land for Dale as the road crossed the bridge: he saw a wide, quiet, brown river with lush green banks and trees.



From there, they drove the long road through the green desert which Sarah knew grew rockier as sage brush took over from grass. At Ogallala, two hours and a hundred and forty nine miles down the road, they crossed the river again, and this time from Flynn’s description the banks were rocky and dry, the river less clear and considerably less peaceful. It had taken the average wagon a minimum of eight days to travel the distance that just rolled away beneath the wheels of the four by four. Ogallala had not existed in Sarah’s day, but the river here had been thick, muddy and full of flies. She showed Dale her image of it with disgust. Even boiled hard and full of coffee and sugar it was still disgusting to drink. Mrs Armstrong died near the river. Since Aunt May drove her wagon and the baby had been with Mama so long, the children didn’t much notice. But it was here that Mama no longer noticed when Sarah didn’t put on her boots, and she ran barefoot on the sage brush like the others, with little feet toughened like leather. To her that was a triumph. By Dale’s reckoning, the children who walked out of Council Bluffs had now walked over three hundred miles.

Near to Ash Hollow by Flynn’s description the ground got rockier and hillier with steep bluffs rising out of the desert, and there was very little in the way of houses or settlements around here. It took a while to find the track in Caroline’s directions that led to the small farmhouse bed and breakfast. Snow was lightly dusting the track and the windscreen as they pulled into the yard, and Flynn turned off the engine.

“Someone coming to meet us. This must be the owner.”

They appeared to mostly be wearing pale pink, head to foot despite the weather. Dale watched the outline of Flynn getting out of the car to shake hands.

“Hello. Flynn O’Sullivan and Dale Aden, we’re booked in with you for tonight.”

“Namaste.” The pink figure had a happy, woman’s voice and appeared to bow before shaking hands. “We’re so pleased you’re visiting us. I’m Angel, and Yokurte is in the garden, he’ll be along to say hello in a while.”

Flynn came around the car, holding the door for Dale to get out. Dale offered a hand in the general direction of the pink.

“Good afternoon. I’m sorry, my vision isn’t great, I’m having to feel my way around the-”

He broke off as his hand touched hers, and both of them drew breath. Then her voice warmed and radically changed tone.

Well. Don’t you have an aura and a half? My goodness. You’re not clouded at all, are you?” Dale felt her hand pass lightly in front of his face. “You’re as clear as a bell, what happened to your vision?”

“A head injury a couple of days ago.” The sense of energy coming off her was strong, and it was a bright energy, a warm and relaxed one that she was using quite intentionally in the way of someone who knew about energy. She took his hand again, and the strength of the sensation was fascinating. She reminded Dale of Valerie, in Jackson. Or Jasper.

“Your heart chakra is blazing though. And your third eye is….. Do you work as a healer? But it isn’t just that. There are other things aren’t there? I can feel it.”

“It’s a bit more complicated than that, yes.” This was a somewhat odd question to be having with a total stranger in a front yard, but the people who saw and got this, and who spoke the language, were rare enough that Dale knew from Valerie, when they met they valued each other for that understanding. It was much the same as a middle aged gay couple who valued the time with another adult couple in a small town, something that reached over the normal barrier between strangers, and he didn’t hesitate to respond just as warmly. “It’s pretty much specific to the land we live on.”

“You work from there?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes. What do you do?”

“Mostly I help people with relaxation and clearing their energy.”

“That he could use.” Flynn said a little pointedly. Angel laughed.

“Ah I see. A stressful few days was it? I’m delighted to meet you both.” Angel put a hand through his arm to guide him. “So Flynn, that must mean you’re the business man from ANZ?”

Dale heard Flynn’s very soft sound of amusement. “No, that’s him too.”

“You’d be surprised at how much the two things go together,” Dale said apologetically. “Although it isn’t something I tell everyone about.”

“I quite understand.” Angel said with sympathy, “One of the things Yokurte and I wanted when we moved out here was to be able to live this way all day every day. I’m very glad you were called to stay with us, and I’m even gladder now we did decide to put you out in the pod. You’ll appreciate the clarity out there, and it might help you with whatever your third eye is so busy with. It’s through this way, do you have any bags to bring? You’re our only guests, you’re going to have the whole garden to yourselves.”

From what Dale could make out, they walked around the side of the long, low house along paths between the sage brush and bushes. Trees and evergreen bushes grew thickly at the back, screening out the wind, and Dale saw the shine on a reflective surface on the ground, that after a moment he recognised as water.

“This is the pod.” Angel said, leading him up a turn in the path. There was a clearing in amongst the bushes and – Dale blinked, unable to make it out.

“It’s inflated.” Angel said happily. “It has its own turbine working all the time, so the air and humidity are very pure and soothing. Completely clear all around, so you can see the stars- oh I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be tactless Dale. You’ll be surprised how snug it is, although there’s hot water bottles under the bed if you want them. There’s a bathroom block just down the path, and a fire pit to the side of your pod here, Yokurte put out logs for you this morning, and your PA requested an evening meal so we put a basket of provisions inside. We have a meditation meeting with some friends in Ogallala this evening but there should be plenty in the basket to keep you both going. Do you plan to do any walking today?”

It was an inflatable pod. Quite glad he couldn’t see Flynn’s face since not laughing would be difficult, Dale kept quiet and let Flynn answer that one.

“We’re interested in the pioneer history of the area.” Flynn said, very steadily considering the circumstances. “Particularly the wagon trains.”

“Well there’s California Hill, and Windlass Hill over this way.” Angel said helpfully. “California Hill is a little way back towards Ogallala, the view is spectacular up there and the wagon ruts are visible. And you’ll find Windlass Hill about a mile further on up the road, that’s the Ash Hollow park – that was the valley by the river wagon trains used to rest and camp. There’s a car park there and a visitors centre with a small museum, that’s nice to look around. They have some of the Neolithic finds they’ve made in the cave, this area was occupied a very long time back.”

There were Neolithic tribes here? Having known the geology of the area but not the palaeontology, Dale reflected on that with interest.

“It’s quite a climb if you want to go up the hill,” Angel went on, “but it’s pretty and the energy there is lovely. It was one of the biggest reasons we chose this farmstead to be on the doorstep of it.” She patted Dale’s arm. “I’ll let you get settled in. Just knock at the back door if you need anything.”

“What is the house?” Dale asked when she’d left. “Is it a farm? A smallholding?”

He heard something being unzipped and felt Flynn’s hand cup over the top of his head, guarding it and guiding him to duck as they went through a low doorway and a walkway, and then on to a surface that crunched slightly underfoot.

“According to the sign by the house, it’s a yoga and spiritual retreat. And this is an inflatable transparent bubble with a bed in it. In a garden. On the prairie. In December. Is there any normal B&B anywhere in Nebraska?” Flynn sounded irate. “If I ever get my hands on your PA….”

“You can’t put ANZ staff over your knee, HR would get really snotty.” Dale pointed out. Flynn snorted.

“When they put you with a head injury in a camping pod in mid winter…”

“Caroline would have gone for whatever there was that was quiet, still open and situated at the right spaces on the route you gave her, we’re lucky to find anywhere open at all. How big is this bubble?”

“About ten feet in circumference. Astro turf ‘carpet’, that’s what you can feel. Double bed here – it’s very low, be careful. Complete with beaded cushions. No curtains of any kind. Small night stand either side of the bed and a lamp, and a basket here which I’ll guess is the food.”

Dale felt cautiously to find the bed surface. It was about knee height, but the mattress felt soft and deep, and there were plenty of covers, including apparently several extremely fluffy blankets. Across the room Flynn said explosively,

“Golden rice with nettles………bunny chow? What the hell is….this box is labelled ‘bunny chow’. Is there some rabbit around here that we’re supposed to feed? Hashbrown and kale casserole…. And fruit. And bread. And jam. And water. I swear these people don’t keep guests, they keep bloody pets!”

“Well at least there isn’t room for an exercise wheel.” Dale sat down with caution on the bed. “Since we’re out in the middle of nowhere and it’s not going to be easy to fish, it looks like we’ll have to manage for tonight.”

“Are you hungry?”

For nettles and kale casserole? Admittedly, not very. Dale shrugged.

“Possibly there’s a vending machine at the visitors centre?”







There was a vending machine at the visitors’ centre. The curator, who appeared thoroughly glad to see anyone at all for company on a day like this, further offered them coffee from the kettle in his office. Flynn, having muttered about the vending machine largely containing junk, brought over several packets of peanuts and trail mix which they ate with the coffee while they chatted with the curator. If his vision had been intact Dale would have spent some time absorbing the displays in the museum. As it was, Flynn read him the notices and described the items which was, Dale appreciated, quite an extreme gesture on his part since Flynn and Riley’s patience for museums was always fleeting, but Flynn seemed to be taking this particular one quite seriously and in the book shop section he paused for a while, leafing through several of the books.

It was as they rounded the corner of one of the displays that Dale saw Reid’s bright head looking closely at something in front of him, his eyes and mouth wide. He was on tip toes, the only clear thing in the blur. Sarah appeared beside him, looking equally shocked.

So now Reid was here, a hundred and fifty miles from the fort at Kearney. And Clay had been at the fort last night with Sarah. They were travelling with her.

Gently and with care, his eyes on the children, Dale grounded and shielded himself. And then as he had last night in the fort, he relaxed those shields and let his body go into the state that let energy flow most freely; both his own and his awareness of any energy touching his. Relaxed, calm, open minded without focusing on anything in particular, without the emotions such as curiosity or frustration or anything else that pulled his attention and blocked connection. It meant forcibly having to let go of any preoccupations like time and place and personal plans or anything else. It meant being here, in the moment, not seeking any outcomes or any control, just doing nothing but being here.

Pretty much as Jasper had very firmly told him in the hospital a couple of days ago. There will be a reason you’ve been slowed down. There is something you need to give your attention to. It was a disciplined state of mind in a very relaxed, calm way, and it wasn’t the first firm conversation he and Jasper had had about getting overly attached to plans and outcomes instead of letting things come in their own time.

Like any form of discipline in Dale’s experience; no matter how much you agreed and fully appreciated the benefits of it, in the heat of the moment it was often not easy to settle yourself to.

Sarah, I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise for the… about thirty two hours of numbing out and footstomping. I’m listening. Would you like to tell me what it is we’re doing?

Sarah glanced up and smiled at him. It was the same kind of sparkling, mischievous smile Riley had when he was doing something he knew was stepping rather close to a line and was enjoying it. And then she went back to looking at whatever she was fascinated by.

“The children are there.” Dale murmured to Flynn. “By the red display cabinet. What are they looking so shocked about?”

Flynn led him over. His presence didn’t seem to bother the children in the slightest, neither child moved or even looked up.

“Photographs of the wagon trains. When were photographs invented?”

“The earliest surviving photograph is 1826.” Dale said automatically. “The Daguerreotype process was made public in 1830,”

“But if Sarah’s family had heard of them, the chances of anyone in a small Wisconsin fishing village seeing one….?” Flynn finished for him. “It was a fishing village, wasn’t it? She’s one of ours in that way too.”

Yes, Paul and David were both fishing town children, and Jasper had fished from rivers all his life. The Chance river running through the ranch was the life blood of it to the stock, and fed them year round. It was Flynn’s voice that warmed him most.

She’s one of ours.

“I didn’t know you saw it like that too.”

“I’m not sure I realised I did.” Flynn said thoughtfully. “I knew that’s what it’s like to you and to Jas, I understand why. But driving this road, seeing the distances and the terrain first hand, realising what she saw and what her family had to do, and some of what it must have been like…. She’s a person in her own right now. Not just a name I know.” 

David was standing by one of the cases, looking at the pictures inside. He glanced across to Dale and smiled.





*







The way Dale explained it and the museum boards described it, Windlass Hill had been where the wagons had to make their way down off the steep hills to the river road below. There were several choices as to where they did it; more than one hill here bore wagon wheel track scars deep in the rock. Around the visitors’ centre were neat grey sidewalks, one that led down to an example of a sod house, a low rock bungalow with a prairie grass roof for warmth, reflecting the lack of wood around the desert for building homes with. Another path led down the hill to the once inhabited cave where some of the finds in the museum had laid until a few years after Sarah’s time. They walked slowly in the light, dusting snow down into the protective shelter built around the rock cave, where through glass the red cave walls and floor were low and smooth. Giving Dale time to adjust to the low light in there, Flynn described it as best he could, a place where eight thousand years of human history lived. Another sidewalk led into a path through the woodland, where as snow drifted lightly down through the trees, a fresh water spring still bubbled up in the stream, its splashing loud enough that Dale turned towards it. Flynn held on to his hand, steadying him as Dale crouched and reached out his other hand to find it, dipping his fingers into what must have been icy water.

“The energy coming off this is remarkable.” he said after a minute, shaking water off his fingers. “Very clear.”

He’d talked before about the feel of energy coming off bodies of fresh water; it was something Jasper was always aware of too. “Different to the lake at Wisconsin?”

“Very.” Dale gripped him for support as he got up. “This feels like the river does at home. Angel is right, the energy here is … very pleasant.”

The fresh air, the quiet and the gentle walking was good for him. He was as relaxed now as he had been last night at the fort, focused and interested, and with nowhere else to go today and wanting him to have the down time, Flynn kept their pace slow but let them explore all over the site. The snow was settling on the grass as they walked along the smooth hiking path up Windlass Hill, and Flynn kept strong hold of Dale as they reached the gully. The museum had explained the mechanics: wagons were lowered down the gully with people walking on ropes, hauling to act as human brakes. Wagons regularly ran away and crashed. There were three smashed wagons on the ranch that Flynn knew of, where they had run off paths. At home Flynn had often hitched up the shires to the big wagon and taken it through the crossing place and the trail through the woods where two of those fallen wagons lay. He knew the feel of reins in his hands from heavy beasts pulling a rolling weight over rough ground, and it was all too easy to imagine being faced with driving them head first down this gully. And these people didn’t just have their beasts to think of. The wagons were all they had, the animals the only means of travel, and their families depended on both.

“How did Sarah’s family get down here?” he asked Dale. Dale stopped, face to the wind, then he crouched down on the grass to duck under it.

“I don’t know.” He said eventually and somewhat ruefully. “She’s not interested in this bit, and it doesn’t matter that we are. I think if something doesn’t spark interest or some kind of high energy in feelings then it doesn’t create the energy needed to share it, the light just doesn’t come on. Getting down here was an adult’s problem, not hers.”

“Is she here?”

“Yes.” Dale looked down into the green valley that lay at the bottom. “All four of them are. But they’re heading for the trees, where the springs are. That’s where they want to be. This was the first fresh water they’d seen in days. Flowers, thick grass, the ash trees after days of desert – her mother called this place the Promised Land. It was a beautiful spot.”

Flynn crouched beside him on the grass, looking at the ground ahead of them. The marks of the wagon wheels were cut several feet into the rock.

“If I had to get a cart down here, I’d be tempted to take the team off, put ropes around a tree or rock, and winch it.”

“There’s another child.” Dale said it softly, watching something down in the valley.

“Another one?”

“A girl. David’s down there with Sarah. I don’t know what they’re doing, it’s as if they’re bringing them here.” He sounded mildly exasperated; not knowing was not something he ever found easy to accept, but from his expression – Flynn ran a hand down his back, watching his face.

“You look as if you’re enjoying watching.”

“It’s hard not to.” Dale said a little ruefully. “Sarah’s so pleased to see her.”

“Sarah’s age?”

“Younger. She’s quite small.” Dale paused again, then shook his head, the amusement growing stronger. “This one does want to think about the gully. There was an ox in her team. He was called Blue. The biggest ox in their whole train. Her father called him the animal with the most sense on the trail. Didn’t mind lightning. Never got tired. Kept the whole team calm. No one else dared try it on this hill, but her father trusted Blue enough to take him to the back of their wagon, rope him on and Blue walked the wagon down backwards with him, step by step, braking it with the adults.”

There were animals Flynn knew and had known that could be trusted like that, who understood instinctively and worked with you in ways you couldn’t train them to if they didn’t have the insight for themselves. Bandit was one. Leo was one. Boris, one of their shires and Flynn’s companion with many fallen trees and the occasional broken-down vehicle, was another. There was little greater in satisfaction than that kind of a relationship with an exceptional animal like that. Dale was still listening to whatever it was he was making out from the land, the air, the wind and the snow blowing lightly around them.

“Her name’s Anna.”

They walked on down the gully and across the grass to the woods. Even in winter, the lushness of the hollow was very different to the desert up on the hill and the prairie beyond it. It was a picnic spot now.

Dale walked through the wood holding his arm, but moving with a purposefulness that Flynn realised was him following someone among the ash trees. Flynn kept him from walking into any obstacles, saying nothing and waiting. Eventually Dale paused by a bank. The white, jagged, layered rocky outcroppings were everywhere here, there was nothing to make this one any different, but this one made a little shelter set into the bank. Low enough for someone very small to get underneath, partially hidden. Dale crouched slowly. Then he put his hand out and softly brushed away snow, dirt and leaves.

“I can’t see straight. Is this what I think it is?”  

The scratching on the underside of the rock was worn and faded, but as Flynn crouched with him to look, he saw the letters H and n and h, still distinct.

“Yes. There’s letters scratched there.”

“Hannah.” Dale said quietly. “Not Anna, Hannah. She found the knife in the woods here. Her brothers had them but she was never usually allowed to touch one, never mind play with it. She had to keep it hidden so nobody saw it, but she carried it with her.”

Her proud handiwork was still visible. Flynn watched Dale brush the earth softly back to protect the markings. Such a tiny thing, but no casual graffiti. This was a small, hidden message of I was here. This was me. From a small person on the trail. 

“Did they have toys?” he said to Dale, thinking about it. “What kind of possessions did they have?”

“Almost nothing. There wasn’t room.” Dale said regretfully, getting up. “Not for books, furniture, clothes – things were abandoned on the trail all the time from people who overpacked their wagons. It was pretty much what they stood up in and food. So this, to Hannah, was something that belonged to her. This was something wonderful, and it was all hers.”

As they climbed back up the hill, the snow got slowly stronger. Flynn kept tight hold of Dale’s hand, keeping him close until they reached the edge of the car lot. Dale glanced down into the valley again.

“Hannah?” Flynn asked him. Dale’s expression was quizzical and more than slightly amused. 

“Yes. There’s five of them now. Five of them together.”









            “You’ve got five of them running around? Who’s the fifth?” Riley sounded delighted by the thought. The bubble tent was surprisingly warm. Flynn had gotten Dale out of his shoes and jacket and sent him to lie on the bed and call home, and at this hour of the day people at home were gathered around the fire together as daylight was going and it was getting too cold to work. Regular trips out to check on the stock would happen, but mostly they would be around the fire, drinking tea, talking, playing games, the other ways that they spent time together at this time of year when so many of them came home. The room was sounding considerably busier and full with voices, almost everyone who would come for Christmas had now arrived. A day ago, Dale would have been preoccupied with the fact that they were not there, where they should be. Tonight – tonight he lay on a bed in a bubble in Nebraska and told Riley in detail about Ash Hollow park with the energy in his voice that meant it was occupying all of his attention.

Listening to Dale sharing Hannah’s story to the family listening on the other end of the phone, and it was evident Dale was talking to quite a crowd who were listening with interest, Flynn was struck by how right this was in some odd way. He could hear in Dale’s voice that he recognised it too. The stories of people and places were something that Dale deeply valued, and that made sense to Flynn. A person knew themselves by their story. He’d spent his working life helping people unpack and listen to their own stories, consider the words they chose, consider which of the stories that held most power for them. People were stories. Listening, sharing, retelling, hearing someone in their story, those were things Jasper valued too. The very act of a group sharing in a story together was something powerful, it was something people did together that went back to the beginning of time, particularly around the fire on the dark nights of the year. They remembered their histories, reaffirmed what drew them together, what they shared in. It was something that would have taken place in the cave not far from here, eight thousand years ago, in very much the same way. Listening to Dale talk, Flynn found himself thinking suddenly of Philip reading A Christmas Carol in the family room at Christmas to a large group of the family who would collect together and listen: something he’d witnessed many times. It was a story beloved to Bear and Gerry and Roger in particular, and Philip had had this same gift of pulling a room full of people together with his voice, whether that was in a board room or in front of the fire at home.  

There would be no record anywhere of Sarah on the trail, or of the other children with her. They had been the least important of those who travelled, just the baggage of the adult travellers, like Blue: a remarkable animal whose name no one remembered. But Blue’s story mattered to Hannah and to Sarah. Enough for them to find Dale and tell it to him. And now Dale was retelling it. These children and their names and their stories were something strong in Flynn’s mind, and they were being listened to with real interest in the family room at home with the others who had lived on the ranch, who knew of Sarah and the wagon ruts on their pastures, who shared in that history.

Riley was handing the phone over to someone else; Flynn heard a familiar voice take over, with a British accent and an always deceptively cynical tone.

“So what did you do to yourself this time?”

“Tom?” Dale demanded. Tom snorted.

“We arrived this afternoon.”

“They brought me.” Wade’s voice said with deep satisfaction. “I had a personal escort. Two very dishy and very tall body guards. Half the heads in the place turned to look. And no one wittered about me boozing on the plane either.”

“He didn’t booze, he had a small whisky and that was his choice, we’d have got him a bottle and a straw if he’d wanted one.” Tom said to Dale. From the sound of it, something was thrown in Tom’s direction, Flynn heard Luath’s voice remonstrating with them in the background.

“Are you all right?” Tom said brusquely. “How bad’s the vision?”

“It’s gradually clearing. Things are more distinct now than they were this morning.” Dale said, and he was always honest with Tom; this was a brat he didn’t feel the need to shelter, which made it a relationship Flynn deeply appreciated him having. “It’s been – interesting? – but day by day it’s getting better. I’m glad you and Jake are home.”

“We were invited. It’s good to be here.” Tom’s tone was offhand but Flynn heard the sincerity under it. The written invitation to Tom was something he’d sent himself well over a month ago, knowing the pleasure it gave Dale and Riley to have this man at home, and the importance of this particular brat knowing he was wanted. And Tom was someone who appreciated the formal recognition. Being seen mattered to everyone.

“I’m not letting anyone crowd him.” Riley said cheerfully in the background. “I’ve got it covered.”

“Where did you arrive from?” Dale asked.

“Columbia. We picked up Wade on our way. Is this inflatable bubble thing warm enough?”

“Yes, despite the snow. It’s amazingly warm considering how thin it is.”

“If it’s true at all, your PA is doing this to Flynn on purpose, and I want to know who bribed her to do it, and a set of pictures!” Miguel’s voice called from somewhere in the background. “But I think you’re in a holiday inn and somewhere totally normal, and you’re just winding us up.”

“Trust me, it’s really a bubble.” Flynn said dryly. Several people laughed. Paul’s voice called something in the background.

“Paul wants to know,” Tom repeated, “What they’re feeding you tonight?”

“They did not feed us. They’re feeding the animals bunny chow, it says so on the box they gave us.” Flynn said under his breath.

“Brace yourselves for this,” Dale advised, and handed Flynn the phone.









             Flynn lit the fire in the small cast iron fire pit as dusk arrived, and they sat outside well bundled up by its warmth and the jumping flames for a while, heating the kettle for tea and warming the food through. The snow was falling gently but steadily, and building up on the trees and bushes in the dark. Flynn saw Dale watching it fall, his eyes focused and teaming. The image might be blurred but he was tracking now. They ate where they sat, the food steaming in their hands. The ‘bunny chow’ turned out to be curried chick peas in bread roll cups, it was far more the kind of thing that Tom and Jake would have preferred, but Dale ate it quite willingly. Flynn tried a few bits before sticking discreetly to the bread and jam, not to put him off. It was hard not to think of those five children who’d eaten by campfires so near to here, who were living on eked out dry supplies and had counted themselves lucky to have enough to eat at all. There were several other isolated camping units of different kinds in the garden, Flynn followed a few of the paths to take a look, and the bathroom block, while freezing, was immaculately clean. This was obviously a well used place in high season.

Once they’d eaten, Flynn settled them to bed and put out the light, taking no notice of the clock standing at slightly past seven pm. It was warm under the covers, and one of the more peculiar experiences of his life to be laying with Dale on his chest, both of them looking up through the transparent bubble shell into the falling snow and the dark sky above, with a winter garden all around them. The flakes were hypnotic. It was a long while before Dale said absently, in the same tone of voice he might have murmured that it was snowing harder now, “Jas.”

Flynn looked down at him. This happened too often to doubt it. Dale blinked, then sat up, his voice getting a lot more surprised.

Jas.”

“Where?”

“Out there!” Dale fumbled, trying to find his way out of the bed. Flynn held on to him, rolling to his feet.

“Stop. Now, before you fall.”

Not particularly surprised at all after decades of knowing Jasper, he went to the – whatever the heck the skin of this clear bubble was, and saw the long figure in a coat with a rucksack, walking down the path through the snow towards him.

“You’re right.” Flynn said to Dale, who had frozen on the edge of the bed with some effort not to follow him. Flynn went to the zipped entrance, waiting until the man approaching them reached the door, unslung his rucksack and met his eyes with a smile that held a whole lot of warmth. Flynn unzipped the door to let him in. Jasper shook snow off his hair, pulled his coat off to contain more snow and hooked an arm around his neck to give him a strong hug, kissing his cheek. He was cool, not cold. Jasper never seemed to feel the cold much.

“Well this is an interesting place.”

“Caroline has an evil sense of humour.” Flynn said dryly. Jasper pulled him a little closer for a moment, his forehead against Flynn’s. Then he passed him to sit down on the bed and gather Dale into his arms, returning Dale’s hug.

“I thought you might like a hand with the driving. How are you?” he took Dale’s head gently between his hands, turning up his face to look less at him than into him. Dale’s face was alight, he was gripping Jasper’s arms as if he was trying to make sure Jasper was real.

“I’m fine, it’s slow but every few hours I notice it’s clearer.”

“Good.” Jasper held his head to kiss him, briefly and gently. He was making each movement a little slower than usual, giving Dale time to sense and prepare for them with the sensitivity that was so typical of this man. “Room for three in that bed?”

“You’d better hope.” Flynn put Jasper’s coat out in the vestibule section and zipped it closed. “Not sure what the host is going to think when she finds we’ve acquired a friend overnight.”

“She was very sweet on the phone.” Jasper said calmly, getting up to undress. “She said you were out hiking, and that she was out this evening, but she gave me directions and told me where to find the pod in the garden.”

“Are you hungry?” Flynn got out of his way to cede him the small amount of floor space available. “There’s a fire pit out there and a kettle, food – of a sort. Edible anyway,”

“I ate a couple of hours back in Scott’s Bluff with the truck driver who gave me a ride down from Casper.”

“You hitched all the way from home?” Dale demanded. Jasper smiled.

“I hitched and walked all the way over these roads for years before I came to the ranch. It’s been slow, the roads are passable but under heavy snow from the ranch down to Douglas, and the weather’s drifting this way. Caroline gave me your list of stops so I’d know where to find you.”

“I’m planning on a slow run to Casper tomorrow.” Flynn shifted over on the bed, drawing Dale with him to make space for Jasper to climb under the covers. The three of them fit without difficulty, the two of them enclosing Dale between them. “One day there, then one more day home. In daylight, after the ploughs have been through.”





*







23rd December





            They’d switched to American for this part of the argument, although Jean-Luc was starting to slip in more and more French phrases as his temper slipped away. Dale leaned on the table, speaking more clearly and a little more quietly rather than louder, pushing his voice through the racket.

“Gentlemen, may I draw your attention back to the key matter at hand. A tripartite agreement by definition involves mutual responsibilities; that is not negotiable. Where one party is in need, the agreement sets out the terms and conditions relevant in ensuring protection of the investment of all three of you, and those must be balanced, without preferential terms for any one party, not least to manage stability of currency values between you.”

So stop whining, sit down and let’s establish the limits of your actual requirements to protect your interests.

The biggest challenge was to protect the interests of all three parties, to co ordinate them together in the fairest and most honest way possible, since that was the strongest way to keep the relationship a successful one. He’d done the same in no few brats meetings at home, except he infinitely preferred the yelling of a brats meeting; it was a good deal more honest, you knew exactly where you were with it, they all played by the rules and had the same strong principles despite the noise and the heat of the moment, and whatever was said, they’d do the repairs afterwards with no bad feeling.

Sarah walked past the end of the board room table.

Dale felt something in him lift at the sight of her. Rooms like this and meetings like this had been his battle ground from his late teens, and the high speed processing and intellectual challenge of the situation in front of him was absorbing – but nothing deeper than that. Nothing stronger than that. Nothing like what Sarah, or anything to do with the ranch, drew straight out of him.

He stepped away from the table and took her hand, and they left the men arguing around the musty, coffee stinking board room and walked out on to a snow dusted prairie. No one looked round as they left.

“What are we doing?” Dale asked politely of Sarah as they walked. Her hand felt very small in his, quite alarmingly fragile, and yet it held onto him strongly and led him after her. She gave him her usual, beaming smile, skipping importantly beside him with her bare feet in the snow, but she didn’t answer out loud. She never did. Children were hiding in the landscape. It was an open prairie, there was nowhere to hide, and yet Dale was aware of them. Three little boys and a little girl.

“All right?” Flynn’s voice said quietly beside him. Dale blinked in the darkness, coming back to the blur and to a bed between Flynn and Jasper’s warmth. He’d half sat up.

“I’ve got it.” Jasper said quietly. Dale felt Jasper’s arm cross him, reaching over to grasp Flynn’s arm, and he got up to let Dale out of the bed. “Dale, need to find the bathroom?”

Yes, good luck with getting Flynn to roll over and go back to sleep. He’d been on what Tom would have referred to as Defcon One since the shipyard. Dale put a sympathetic and deeply affectionate hand on Flynn’s back as he felt Flynn roll out of bed too, immediately awake and uncomplaining.

“It’s a block at the back of beyond, down the garden.” Dale felt a sweater put into his hands and saw the outline of Flynn pulling his own on. “Dale, get dressed properly. There’s snow out there.”

He and Jasper were patient with his middle of the night bathroom visits. They both understood that they were often more to do with taking a break from sleep to let his subconscious process whatever it was he’d picked up on more than any physical need. It was lucky they did understand; otherwise Dale thought they’d have hauled him in front of a urologist by now, and that would have made for an awkward conversation.

They all three of them dressed and went out to the icy bathroom block beyond the pond. Snow was no longer falling. There wasn’t much more than an inch, just a sugar crust dusting on the ground and over the bushes when Dale touched them, pure white and frozen solid in the darkness. The air was very still, he could see their breath misted strongly as they breathed, and the smallholding and the miles and miles of open prairie around them was silent. The paths wound everywhere through the garden in an ornate pattern beneath the soft beams of a few solar lights. It was a peaceful place and Dale knew exactly what their hostess meant about ‘clarity’. The openness of the land, the fresh water on it made the energy here very pure. And the thousands of years of history on it filled it with energy too. Like home.

“This is a beautiful place.” Jasper said to him. He had his arm lightly through Dale’s and Dale could feel the peace in him too. He would be as aware of the calm energy here and the focus it created.  

“Ash Hollow’s that way,” Flynn said to Jasper as they walked, exploring the paths more than purposefully going back to bed, since the three of them were in the habit of night time wandering together outside like this. “We saw the museum yesterday and walked the hill. They lowered the wagons down on ropes, it’s half as steep again as the road down into Three Traders. It would be a hell of a job walking a team down there with a rolling weight behind them.”

“Who are your visitors?” Jasper asked mildly. Flynn stopped on the path beside the pond.

“You see them?”

“In flashes. Small. There’s several of them. Over there, by the gate into the pasture.”

“There’s five of them.” One by one they were coming into view. Through the blur of bushes Dale could see Reid and Hannah walking through a flowerbed of low bushes, stooping to rub and sniff at leaves. Herbs then. A herb bed. Jesse was walking along the top of the fence rail with his arms outstretched, and glanced over and smiled at him. Sarah and Clay were in the pasture beyond the garden, running in the snow although they left no trace on its surface. “Sarah’s been collecting other children ever since we started on the trail. These are places they knew, they’ve been enjoying themselves.”

In the pasture, Sarah turned to look at him. Dale walked slowly down the path to the gate, leaning on it to watch her. Reid looked up at Flynn and followed him. Hannah skipped down the path by Jasper as they walked.

Flynn’s arm closed around his waist, he leaned on the gate beside Dale.

“What is she telling you about?”  

“She camped quite near to here. In the hollow. She thought it was beautiful, they rested here two days. It was like a holiday.” Dale paused, following the images from Sarah. They came in a rush, fragments of things he recognised. The smell of woodsmoke, the creaking of wooden wheels moving, a pasture soaked with dew in first light. “Most days they got up before dawn. Cooked breakfast, hitched up the wagons. They walked all day. Stopped around six to make camp for the night, they were too tired to do more than eat and go to sleep. At first Sarah’s mother tried to put up the tent every night for them to sleep in, but after a few weeks it was more than she could manage. The weather was fine so they slept beside the wagon. Or under it. Sarah liked that. Every day was always the same. But here they stopped and rested. In the evening when they were here there was music every night. People had time to get out instruments and play, they weren’t too tired. She saw the firelight and fell asleep to them singing or telling stories. Her mother baked cookies. Although Jesse and the other boys stole them as fast as she could make them.”

“Did all the children come here to Ash Hollow?” Jasper asked him.

It wasn’t easy to sort through the bits and pieces of information, there were five of them sharing it at speed tonight, although the flow from Sarah was by far the strongest, and with Jasper here it was even stronger than usual. Clearer. “Sarah did. Jesse. Hannah. Sarah was with them here. I don’t think Reid was. I don’t know about Clay.”

“What is it they’re out here for tonight?” Flynn sounded compassionate. “What do they want you to see?”

“Nothing. They’re just playing. That’s all.” Dale watched Reid and Hannah run out into the pasture to join the others. Playing. The kind of messing around, throw and catch games that broke out on the ranch between them. Dale understood it from the heart, how it felt to be silly and to mess around with people you loved.

“And it’s about us.” He added to Flynn, since here in the clarity of this place he understood it clearly from the children. “What they want us to see. Not just me. A lot of why they’re here tonight is you. Sarah’s always liked you, but you remind Hannah of her father. He had your gift with animals, the same kind of friendships with them. Jesse sees you as like them. One of them. ‘Another farmer’s brat’. That’s the phrase he thinks. And Reid – they just like being out here with you. It’s like the foals at home when you walk through the pasture.”

Their foals knew the steady energy that emanated from Flynn, that cared about everything and everyone, that calmed and kept the world stable for you. They knew it at gut level the same way Dale and Riley did. It was the energy every animal on their ranch responded to, that made every horse come straight to his hand, and made the foals trail him as he worked. A practical man who had grown up running stock and crossing vast, rough and wild ground to do it. The children were drawn to him. Dale swallowed on a rush of fierce pride. Of course they were drawn to this man. Who wouldn’t be?

“Well that’s poleaxed him.” Jasper said comfortably, lounging on the gate with them.

“The trail was exciting,” Dale said, slowly since it took time to turn things into words and interpret accurately, with the nuances the children meant, even though he understood this one from the heart. “It was one long adventure which was – not always easy. They want to be here, they want to see it again. You make it easier. You make them feel safe.”









            Flynn went on strike regarding bunny chow for breakfast. He lit the fire outside once they had the snow off it, and Jasper and Dale ate what was left of the food, leaving Flynn to toast bread and finish the jam. Tom would have made acerbic comments about Top qualifications and diet. The outline of a stocky man in brightly coloured clothes passed them taking an armful of logs towards the house and waved. That was no doubt Yokurte. Angel followed with more logs and paused to talk to them; she appeared to be in highly drapy green garments today from what Dale could make out, which looked inadequate for an inch of snow frozen hard on the ground. She nearly floated through the garden, as if she barely touched the ground.

“You found us all right?” she said happily to Jasper, adding the logs to their pile. “How do you do?”

“Nice to meet you.” Jasper shook hands. “I’m sorry we’re here in midwinter, I’d like to see your organisation when it’s busy with clients.”

“You take clients yourself?”

“We all do as a group, but in a different way. One at a time, resident with us.”

Angel put a hand through Dale’s arm, joining him beside the fire. “So there’s two of you with interesting energy.”

“Actually there’s five of us.” Dale said with no intention of explaining that in depth. “With somewhat of a team approach, different specialisms, a mosaic and multi disciplinary -”

Flynn’s hand slid down and patted him discreetly on the seat of his jeans in a stop teasing people kind of a way.

“Well you can’t argue that it isn’t?” Dale pointed out. The pat this time was firmer.

“Thanks for having us here Angel, it’s been a real experience. We’ll be on the road once it’s defrosted a bit.”

“What comes off you is very interesting.” Angel said to Dale. “Did you see the light orbs in the garden last night when the three of you were out walking? I’m sorry, I really wasn’t spying, I don’t sleep much and my studio looks out over the garden. They were so beautiful. It was lovely to see them, I’ve never seen one that clearly never mind so many. Do those orbs happen for you a lot?”

“I don’t usually see orbs, no.” Dale said with perfect truth. “It tends to be people.”

“You’re – kind of an energy focuser, aren’t you?” Angel said thoughtfully. “No, maybe ‘energy freer’ would work better? You contain and release it. Unclutter it. Get it moving in the right direction.”

“Usually I kind of hold energy in place so that more competent people can work with it. I’m a trouble shooter by career.” It tended to be a range of troubles from temperamentally unstable French bureaucrats, brats, Whats, horses and sheep, but it was accurate.

“You said it was specific to the land you live on?” Angel asked him. Dale smiled.

“Yes. Specific to the place and the people there.”

“You have a private practice.” Angel said with understanding. “That’s lovely. I wish you well with it, it’s been lovely to meet you all. There is one thing I’d like to do before you leave if I may?”

She moved past Dale. Dale saw the blurred figure of her put her hands on Flynn, firmly turn him around and then her hands gently rested on his shoulders.

“You’re carrying a lot of stress. How sore is your back?”

“You won’t get him to admit it,” Jasper said dryly. Flynn grunted.

“He’s exaggerating. It’s just too many nights in strange beds.”

And driving hundreds of miles, and managing me. More than slightly guilty, Dale watched her work. The energy around her hands was bright, the flare was visible in the blur. Then she patted Flynn and let him go.

“See how that goes. Have a safe journey.”









            Despite Jasper being there, Flynn still drove. When the roads were bad, he always did; it wasn’t a responsibility he’d hand off to any of them, and Jasper didn’t argue with him, but having his company in the car, just his being there, was good. The road was salted, the asphalt clear although snow covered the grass and the prairie on either side. It was a bright day, the sky was grey but crisp, and the air was still, and they drove at a slow, steady pace for the first hour or two. Then Jasper leaned forward from the back seat and touched Flynn’s shoulder.

“Turn up there.”

It was an unsalted road, Dale felt the difference beneath the tyres, but they were used to snow and ice driving in the winter, the snow was only an inch or so deeper this further west, and the four by four could take it.

“Where is this?” Dale said to Jasper, who was leaning forward to see.

“A visitor centre. There’s a parking lot up here.”

“You’ve been up here before?”

“I walked up a few times when I was travelling this road.”

It was possible to look out of the window today without images becoming too blurred and confused to bear. There still wasn’t much detail, but he could recognise the sweater Jasper wore, and see the outline and shapes of text on the road signs. There was no one else in the car lot. Flynn parked, and Jasper handed them their coats, holding out a hand to Dale.

“Come look at this.”

There was a grey building housing the visitor’s centre, but Dale’s eyes went straight to what was beyond it. A spire of rock across the snowy prairie, disappearing up into the sky. Standing there with Jasper’s hands on his shoulders, he recognised the distinctive shape immediately.

“Chimney Rock.”

It was one of the most well-known landmarks of the Oregon trail.









They passed through Scotts Bluff. The next primary stopping point for wagons in Sarah’s day was Fort Laramie on the banks of the river. The town of Laramie itself was busy, chaotic with the Christmas shopping rush. Flynn took the car through a coffee drive-through where they got sandwiches and coffee, and they parked in the snowy car lot at what remained of the fort. In its heyday, decades after Sarah’s visit, it had been a military reservation nine miles long and six miles wide, the largest and best-known fort on the Northern Plains. In Sarah’s time it had been a small fur traders post, known as Fort John, the resting point at the beginning of the long climb up through the foothills to South Pass through the Wyoming mountains. Casper did not yet exist, and the US Army wouldn’t start to protect and provide a presence for emigrants on the trail for another year. There was nothing between here and Wind River but the trail.

Now it was a preserved historical site of standing buildings and standing ruins on the open plains. It was quiet today, only few people were visiting and wading through the several inches of snow on the ground, but the three of them were used to being outside in all weathers and dressing for it. Sipping coffee as they walked, they made the slow tour of the fort, along the streets of remaining buildings. The buildings housed rooms set up as they would have been mostly long after Sarah’s time when the military were here; the barrack with its line of grey blanketed soldiers’ beds and blue uniform hung on the walls, the guard house, the traders’ store with jars of coffee, candles and furs, the officers’ dining room and the bedroom and the military artefacts were interesting enough, but all the time it was in Dale’s mind that they were nothing connected to her. In one of the downstairs stone rooms stood a wagon without canvas, just the wooden frame on its wheels. Flynn paused there, looking in detail at the size.

“Such a small thing,” he said eventually. “To take all that load all that way. A whole family relying on one of those and the stock that pulled it. Are the children here?”

“I haven’t seen them yet today.” Dale looked with him at the wagon. “But then none of these buildings were here in Sarah’s time. She wouldn’t recognise it, the fort she knew is long gone.”

“What were you meaning this morning about holding energy still?” Jasper was leaning against the wall near them, looking at the carts in the room through the bars. There was only them here. Dale put a hand out to hold the rails, thinking about it.

“You know the way things work with David. He has a connection to me. He can find me, and I’m the one in the here and now, so if I’m aware of someone stuck I hold the connection in place and he can reach through to them.”

Since the first one. Since Roger. Jasper and Flynn had been with him that first time.

“So what do you think is happening with the children?” Jasper asked him.

Dale shook his head. “I don’t know for sure.”

“Your best guess?”

“The best hypothesis I have so far… Sarah has the connection to me. It’s as if visitors have a kind of inner picture or feeling of the places they go to or the people they like to be with. As if it’s a code or a signal they can home in on when they want to. That’s how Sarah was able to be in Wisconsin with us. I was there, and she was interested in the place. Now we’re on a route she knows she seems to be using me standing in a place as a focus, and then David to reach whoever it is she wants to connect to that she knew in those places. Clay. Jesse. Hannah. Now they’ve found the signal for each other it seems as if they can find each other at will. David’s been more than happy to help her. I think she wanted to find the children she met on the trail. The ones that meant the most to her.”

“What about Reid?” Flynn asked.

“Reid was just visiting the fort. I saw him and drew Sarah and David’s attention to him. I was worried about him.” Dale smiled, thinking about it. “Sarah adopted him. He doesn’t seem to mind. He doesn’t have to be here with them and the other children.”

Flynn folded his arms, eyes still on the wagon. “None of them survived the trail, did they? Every one of them means a family that put their heart into this, took one of these wagons all this way over hard ground, and they lost their child doing it.”

Flynn and Jasper were standing quite close and Dale saw the movement of Jasper’s arm, the hand that brushed Flynn’s back.

“About a fifth of the people that came down the trail were children.” Dale said softly, hearing the tone in Flynn’s voice. “The statistics are that about one in ten of the population who travelled didn’t make it, and children were vulnerable to accidents. Illness. Cholera around the Platte river because of the number of people washing and swimming and grazing animals there.”

“Do you know what happened to Sarah’s four?”

“No. Not at all. To most people I meet, it was a few minutes in the whole picture of their life and they weren’t interesting minutes. Their energy goes to what sparks more energy, the things they want to share.”

“Like watching stock break out of a pen and run all over a road.” Flynn said to the iron railings in front of them. “Or setting a fence on fire and putting it out without getting caught. Or having a knife that was all yours. The brightest moments of memory.”

“Yes.” That was something Dale had learned himself, slowly and with patient help from this man to understand it. “That’s where the strong energy is for them as much as anyone else. You say it to me. The good memories matter.”

Flynn put a hand down to find his, winding his fingers through Dale’s and the three of them stood there together by the reconstructed wagon.

“What about Reid?” he asked after a while. “What does he remember?”

The one who had possibly been alone at the fort. Of course he would be the one that concerned Flynn the most; he cared about anyone in difficulty or a vulnerable situation.

“I don’t know.” Dale admitted. “It’s kind of Philip’s rules. They either choose to tell you themselves, or it’s on a need to know basis. Idle curiosity isn’t exactly…. Polite. It isn’t about me and what I’d like to know. No matter how frustrating that might be.”

“There was a sign for the original fort Sarah would have known.” Jasper led the way out into the soft, slow fall of a few drifting flakes from a grey sky. “Across the parade ground.”

There were no remains left of the building that had once been the source of so many people’s comings and going here. Near to the Laramie river, Fort John as it had been in Sarah’s time, had long since fallen down and given way to the more modern buildings around it, and the officers’ quarters now sat partially on the site.

In front of the fort had been an encampment of tents of traders of all kinds. Three or four times a year it was hugely swelled by native American traders, who came to barters for dry goods. Furs and hides, beads and flour, sugar and beans, coffee and leather. The noise and the smells and the tents had spread out so far in all directions, with many feet always moving between them in the grass, the big cannon on the front tower of the fort pointing outwards, and the endless herds of animals picketed and gathered and corralled while people camped. Their wagons were a long way up river, some walk from the fort since the camp was so big. Mama washed their clothes by the river, and at night as she lay under the wagon in her roll of bedding, the singing and the noise was loud and came from close by the newly built fort walls with the big black cannon on the front. Little girls didn’t go into forts.

“There was a camp here by the fort walls.” Dale said aloud as they walked slowly on towards the river. “It was enormous at times of the year when Shoshone people were here trading. Sarah’s father bought supplies here. Coffee. Flour. He bought her mother some carved beads, for her birthday. Blue beads on a leather string. Sarah thought they were beautiful.”

Sarah stooped in front of him to touch a flower in the grass, as though in her mind she picked it. Jesse slowly faded into view on the bank, his arms folded on his knees as he crouched, watching the snow floating down on the water. Clay and Hannah were walking hand in hand towards him. Dale looked for Reid, moving unhurriedly and with care. There. A little way behind them, and mostly behind Flynn. Trailing them. Not good with children, Dale gave him a cautious smile. Reid’s face didn’t change and he ducked a little further back behind Flynn.

That was always a safe place to be.

David was standing on the river bank some way off from the children, his hands in his pockets and his back to the water, surveying the remaining fort buildings. This place had been deserted and derelict for forty years when he first came to their lands. It was only Sarah among the Falls Chance people who had ever known it, for a few days one summer.





*







Their hotel was a large and expensive one in the shape of a wooden Swiss ski lodge, and the car lot was far busier than Flynn liked the look of, considering Dale’s situation. On the other side of the car, Jasper held the door for Dale, helping him into his coat as he climbed out. Flynn could see him taking in the numbers of cars as he looked around with equal reserve. If it hadn’t been snowing and freezing cold out here, Flynn would have left them both to wait in the car lot while he checked it out. They crossed the lot to the blasting warmth of the front door. The lobby inside was heavily Christmassed. Flashing lights and jingling music confronted them from an over decorated tree. Dale instinctively closed his eyes, he couldn’t quite disguise the flinch away. Getting less impressed by the second with this place, Flynn took his shoulders and steered him fast past it and through the second doorway into reception, reminded of precisely why he hated bloody cities.

Christmas decorations and skiing appeared to be a heavy theme of the entire place. The lobby was noisily chock full of people seated on the couches around the tables, drinking coffee beneath multiple tv screens and large wall hung photographs of people ski boarding. The entire ground floor appeared to be some kind of cafe. Walking between the several artificial trees, Dale paused to get his bearings, intentionally straightening his shoulders in the way he had whenever he set his jaw and his mind to do something difficult. Flynn suspected it was harder for him to walk when he could see but not process at speed than it had been when he could make out nothing at all. Flynn slowed with him, standing to block him from being trodden on by passers-by with coffee trays and numerous small children who were running around. Jasper headed straight for the reception desk.

An animatronic group of king penguins were flapping slowly on a display beside it. Two had toppled over and were flapping on their sides. One at the back appeared to be trying to run away. Flynn didn’t blame it. Small children crashed in and out of a soft play area on the other side, engaged in play that involved a lot of shouting, random violence and small coloured balls. Flynn caught one that flew near Dale, laying it down on the reception desk while stifling mild homicidal desires and the urge to get Dale the hell out of here. Except that finding another and quieter hotel with a room in a city the day before Christmas Eve was going to be unlikely, and Dale had already travelled as far as he needed to today. Jasper moved calmly, drawing Dale in between them to shield him from any further missiles. Flynn herded them both to the furthest and quietest part of the reception area. There was no one behind the desk of course.

“Think it’s worth looking for an alternative to this madhouse?” Flynn muttered to Jasper. He snagged another flying ball before it got near Dale, giving a hard stare to the parent of the ball lobber to suggest that they might like to consider doing some parenting. Jasper leaned on the desk, lifting his voice to reach the open office door.

“Good afternoon, could we have some help please.”

He was using the pleasant but level tone that tended to get Riley and Dale’s attention fast. It worked on hotel staff too. The person who came out of the office was wearing a ski suit with a pair of neon orange boxer shorts over the top, had long blond hair and looked about seventeen. He grinned at them, turning around a computer screen for Jasper.

“Hey dude. You’re the ANZ party, right? Sign in there.”

“Are you this busy upstairs too?” Flynn said shortly.

“Nah this is just a Christmas party going on, the local ski club.” The teenager assured him. “It’s cool, you get a free grappa. Come on down and join us once you’ve dropped your stuff in your room.”

Not under any circumstances. Jasper signed them in rapidly and accepted a card which appeared to be all they were going to get in the way of a key.

“Upstairs, to your left, the front room.” The teenager told him, raising his voice as several people began to sing along with one of the big tvs. “Have a really cool stay.”

What exactly a ‘cool stay’ involved, he didn’t specify.

Flynn moved Dale fast out of the reception area and up the wide stairs. Once they reached the first landing the noise thankfully faded away behind them. Jasper dropped the card in the door lock and opened it, and Flynn guided Dale inside, into relative silence. He was pale and he was walking stiffly. That was by far the noisiest and busiest place they’d encountered since he left the hospital, and the last thing he’d needed to be exposed to. Flynn peeled him out of his coat, dropped into the deep, two seater couch by the window, and pulled Dale down into his lap.

“Breathe.”

The reminder made him draw a deeper breath, releasing some of the tension. Flynn hugged him, talking very quietly against his ear.

“I’m sorry about that. Are you all right?”

“Yes. Just a bit nauseous. That was … worse than I expected.”

Across the room, Jasper found a kettle on a hot drinks stand and switched it on. Flynn reached down to pull Dale’s snow damp shoes off, helping him lay down so he was half on Flynn and half on the couch.

“We knew noise was a bad idea, you’ve been doing fine so long as we stay away from it. There isn’t anything to worry about. We won’t go out again today.”

“I’ll be fine in a minute.”

“Do we need to talk about bullshit?” Flynn said shortly. He saw Dale’s faint smile.

“No. Really not.”

“In this weather we’re going to be staying up here anyway.” Jasper said calmly. “I’ll walk down the street and find some take out later.”

About the whole of the wall of the room was window, which probably was fine when it looked out onto a snowy mountainside in a ski lodge. In down town Casper, looking out over the snowy city wasn’t quite so effective. A pair of antler horns hung on the wall above a couple of cream armchairs, and a very large king sized bed was covered with a fake fur blanket. Beyond the window the snow was getting heavier and it was already getting dark despite being mid afternoon. Jasper poured tea, bringing three mugs across to the low coffee table by the couch. He took a seat on the floor, his back against the couch beside them.

“There’s a mug here, Dale. It’s chamomile tea, that’s what they had.”

At least it was hot and comforting. In Flynn’s pocket, his phone buzzed. Flynn pulled it out and raised his eyebrows at the unfamiliar number on the screen.

“Hello?”

“Flynn, it’s Annie Aden.” A British woman’s voice said apologetically, and it was a voice Flynn knew from a number of phone calls through the past year. “We’re sorry to bother you, Paul gave me your number, he said you wouldn’t mind us calling- he told us about you and Dale stranded out on the road. There isn’t anything we can practically do, we know, but-”

“There really is.” Flynn said with real appreciation. “Your timing is perfect. We just arrived at a hotel with total chaos going on downstairs, it’s made him feel awful and he could really use some time with you. Dale, it’s your grandmother.”  

He saw the conflict in Dale’s face, somewhere between shock, alarm and pleasure.

Yes, kid. Talk to them for once with the safety catch right off. Flynn put the phone in his hand, leaning back to hold him as he damn well needed to be held, and saw Jasper’s casually draped arm on the couch that happened to rest over Dale’s knee.

It had become something of a Sunday evening habit every few weeks that either Dale rang them, or they rang him, and they talked for twenty minutes or so, in addition to the emails they exchanged. Listening into the conversations or occasionally glancing through the emails they sent, Flynn saw how much the Adens valued the ordinary odds and ends of knowing Dale. They put the same effort and care into him that Riley put into building trust with a nervous horse, never pushing too far, always respecting his pace. This stray grandson of theirs, the remaining link to their son, really mattered to them and Dale, in a reserved and cautious way they never saw with any family member of the ranch’s, liked them. Paul, who had met them with Dale last Christmas, liked them too, and he, Flynn and Jasper quietly did everything they could to nurture and support the link. Riley, although they’d never said a word to him about it, simply picked up the phone to them and chatted with the same friendliness he extended to everyone, and he probably talked to them the most apart from Dale.

Talking to them when he was vulnerable, not in full control of himself, was not easy for Dale but Flynn could hear Annie was concerned enough to be a little less careful with him than she usually was, and she was extracting information from him gently but quite effectively. Dale was describing the hospital in Wisconsin right now, and Annie was far more interested in Dale’s experience of it than in just the facts. They talked for about half an hour while Jasper and Flynn lounged with him on the couch, by which time Annie knew about the couple running the German B&B, about Angel and her transparent bubble and all about the lobby downstairs, and Richard, who knew how to get Dale talking on subjects he was interested in, had got a description of the main features of the trails and of Fort Laramie. And they both had him talking a little quietly but freely; Flynn could feel the ease in his body. As they said goodbye, Flynn put a hand down to ask Dale for the phone.

“Thanks, Annie. He really needed that.”

“I hope it’s an easy journey home tomorrow,” Annie said gently, “have a lovely Christmas, Flynn. Safe driving.”

“When are you going to invite them to stay?” Jasper said to Dale as Flynn put the phone away. Dale shook his head.

“They’re a little elderly for a flight that long.”

“You took James and Niall that far last year and they’re older?” Jasper reminded him. Dale looked slightly shocked.

“Yes, but… I doubt they’d want to?”

“The first question is, do you want to.” Jasper put a hand out to ruffle his hair. “Start from there. I’m going to go find us something to eat.”  

Flynn hustled Dale through a bath while he was gone, and about forty minutes later Jasper returned with a bag of three double burgers, a cup of fries half of which occupied the bottom of the bag, and three shakes which Jasper-style contained a large amount of stirred in syrups in various flavours. They passed those around between themselves, sprawled out on the bed together, and shared the phone to home where the family room was full of people sharing a buffet around the fire. Bear’s deep voice answered the phone, and the first thing he demanded was: “Seen any more of the kids?”

So in different parts of the state, they lay there together and Dale told them about the children in the snowy pasture before dawn, and by the river at the fort. He had to re tell quite a lot of it for the benefit of the newly arrived members of the family who had missed out on the earlier parts of the story, and go into detail for James, whose interest in American history was both personal and professional, and who with Niall had been to Casper Fort and to Chimney rock and hiked all around the area thirty years ago. Between the two of them they had questions it took both Dale and Jasper to answer on the road and the changes.

When they said goodnight to the large crew on the ranch they lay in silence on the king sized bed in front of the picture window and watched it get dark over Casper city, with the snow whirling down outside of the glass. Dale fell asleep between them, dark head on his arm. The indefinable kind of reserve that came to his face when they were away on a work project – and Paul saw it too when he was away with Dale – had faded, now they were near to home. He looked himself again. Younger, livelier, happier. Flynn ran his fingers slowly through Dale’s hair, smoothing it back from his face, propped on one elbow alongside him. Jasper’s arm was slung over Dale’s hip on Dale’s other side, his head against one of the hefty pillows, his dark eyes warm.

“How sore is the back now? We’re good here if you want to get a bath and take a break. You’ve been wrangling all this and a bunch of What Kids for a week.”

“I’ve been grateful for the kids.” Flynn said wryly. “Following them and the trail has kept him busy since we reached Council Bluffs, they’ve kept his mind right off everything else.”

“I thought the route history might help. I didn’t expect the What activity to be much more than a few wheels rumbling, even for Dale. There are so many roads and tourists through there won’t be much left of anyone else’s energy, but I was reckoning without Sarah.”

“You’ve seen Sarah?”

Jasper gave him a quiet nod. “A couple of times. Mostly glimpses in the woods at home.”  





*







24th December





They left the swiss chalet hotel early, shortly before seven am while the light was still coming up outside.

The ploughs had been through overnight, the roads were salted and clear, and more or less empty at this hour, although the snow was piled high by the side of the road. The sky was grey but clear and dry, a drive thru was open for coffee and muffins, and at a steady, careful pace they took the last leg of the journey out of Casper, first to Shoshone and through the reservation.

The snow piles by the sides of the road grew steadily higher as the territory around them began to look more and more like home. The landscape became rockier, steeper and undulating as they moved towards the mountains. Long stretches of open land were white instead of green, but to Dale it was familiar and wonderful. It was a little after eleven am when they turned into the drive way under the snow capped wooden sign that read Falls Chance Ranch. Someone had been down the track with their own plough this morning; it was newly cleared. Flynn bumped slowly over the snow track, until the paddocks came into view and horses in thick coats began to come to the fence to watch them pass. Hired cars were parked in a line clustered along the paddocks, the sign the house was busy. And then Flynn turned the car into the yard and hit the horn, the corral horses came to lean over the rail, and several people appeared from the house, running down the steps.

Dale unfastened his seat belt, got out of the car into the familiarity of the yard and Riley reached him first, catching him strongly but far more gently than he usually would.

“Finally! Some ‘in and out’ that was.”

“It wasn’t the plan.” Dale admitted, hugging him hard. Riley’s face and hands were cold, he was obviously fresh from work and he would have started early this morning, and having been missing him for days it was difficult to let him go.

“What can you see?” Riley grabbed his head gently between his hands, looking hard at his face. “How bad is it now?”

“Ri, take it gently and don’t hassle him.” Jasper put an arm around Riley’s waist, dropping a kiss on his cheek, and went on to Paul who was waiting at the foot of the steps.

“I can see you, I can see pretty much everything except reading print, I could make out the road signs this morning. It’s almost gone, it’s fine.” Dale grasped Riley’s wrists, letting him look. Riley gently touched the healing graze on his forehead.

“It’s so small to have caused all this.”

“It’s over now. Anyone left to collect today?”

“Nope, we’re done. Everyone came ahead of the weather, we’ve had a full house since yesterday afternoon. We were just waiting for you before we went to get the tree this morning.”

“You’re not dragging Dale out into the woods through heavy snow.” Flynn said definitely, hugging Riley tight enough to lift him off his feet. “Hey halfpint. We’re keeping the house quiet and the racket to a minimum, he isn’t up to it.”

“Has he been like this the whole time?” Riley demanded of Dale, but he hugged Flynn hard, both arms locked around his neck.  

Several people were pulling their bags out of the trunk. Dale recognised Bear and Jake among them, but tactfully they were hanging back, letting the five of them have a few minutes between themselves and Dale appreciated it. Paul met Dale’s eyes as Dale looked for him, and held out his arms.







The fire was blazing in the hearth in the family room, and was well built up with thick logs that would take all day to burn. In Paul’s lap, since Paul clearly didn’t plan to let him go any time soon, Dale held on to him and drank tea, blessedly proper tea. Across from them, Gerry was perched on the arm of the sofa beside Ash, and Theo was on the arm of the armchair Bear was occupying since if they tried it the other way around the chair tipped over. Luath was on the couch with Ash. Darcy was sitting on the hearth beside Jasper, who had pulled Riley into his lap, his arms folded around Riley’s waist. The older members of the family were gathered in their usual favourite place, the study, and were tactfully staying out of the way, and more of the family, led by Peter, had taken over the morning stock work in unusual numbers, apparently keen for a walk in the snow. From the unusually calm and peaceful atmosphere in the house, Dale would have been prepared to hazard a guess that the Tops had banded together this morning and established some firm ground rules about noise. Jake leaned on the back of the couch behind them, and Tom, dressed as Jake was in lined pants and a soft shell fleece sweater, cold weather gear that said they’d spent plenty of time outside this morning and planned to spend a good deal more there yet, took a seat at the far end of the hearth, giving Dale a brief and very private nod with his dark eyes.

Good morning.

Hello.

“You’re tired.” Paul rubbed a hand down Dale’s arm, watching his face which he was doing a lot. “What was the Casper hotel like?”

“Loud.” Flynn said shortly. Having put the hired car out of the way in the line with the others, and taken a quick look around the corral at the horses and the pasture to check on the stock, his cheek bones were wind chilled scarlet and he took a seat next to Paul, wrapping his hands around a cup of tea.

“Only downstairs.” Jasper corrected. “We were fine up in the room, the bed was comfortable, and we left before it had a chance to get loud again this morning. There was some kind of party going on downstairs when we arrived yesterday, it was more than we needed to handle.”

“If you’d have let me hike out with you,” Riley grumbled at him, “You’d have had more pairs of hands to help,”

“And it would have been louder and busier.” Flynn finished for him.

“You’re no fun.”

“On iced roads in heavy snow, no.”  

“Is anyone coming to get this tree?” Bear inquired. Jasper got up, taking Riley with him.

“We are. Ri, let’s get Boris.”

“If we don’t take all three of them Petra’s going to sulk.” Riley warned him. “She loves making this trip. Dale, coming?”

“No.” Paul said with finality, over the top of Flynn’s equally definite “No.”

“I’m coming.” Darcy got up and Luath joined him.

“Me too. Jake?”

“We’re in.” Jake held out a hand to Tom. Someone had tipped off the group in the study; men were starting to gather in a large crowd in the kitchen to sort out coats and boots. Tom got up off the hearth a little warily. This was the house very full of family and the first time he’d ever handled this much of them at once. And the first time he’d ever been here for Christmas. Dale thought it was likely the first time he’d been in any home for Christmas in his entire adult life. The whites of his eyes were visible, but he leaned abruptly over the back of the couch and roughly kissed Dale’s cheek.

Audentes Fortuna iuvat.”

“Ignis aurum probat.” Dale advised him.

Tom gave him a brief grin, taking Jake’s hand. “Quae semper.”

“Finish that tea and come have a bath.” Paul said to Dale. “I want you properly warm and wearing something a lot more comfortable, and then you’re taking the rest of today very easy. Flynn, are you treeing?”

“No, a bath sounds good to me too.” Flynn drained his own mug and took Dale’s empty one. “We’ve been kicking around hotel rooms for days, I want a wash in something that isn’t a barrel or a frozen bathroom block on the prairie.”

It was the first year since he’d come to the ranch that Dale had seen Flynn not head out with the party to cut the tree.

“I’m fine with Paul,” he said to Flynn, “I could find my way around the house with no vision at all and it’s not as if I’m going to get two minutes on my own to get into difficulties anyway,”

“Too right you’re not,” Paul agreed cheerfully. “I haven’t seen you in a week.”

“And you love getting the tree. If I can’t go then you should. It’s important.”

“Other people have that covered for us this morning. I trust them.” Flynn stooped down and kissed him, firmly. “We’ll manage.”







            A long soak in the bath, after which Paul refused to let him put on anything except pyjamas and a sweatshirt which confirmed exactly how Paul planned on him spending the rest of the day, did leave Dale feeling considerably more human. By the time Paul settled him on the couch with another mug of tea and a plate of the running buffet that was occupying the kitchen and feeding the large amounts of men gathered in the house, Bear was setting up a very large tree by the fireplace with Jasper’s help, and Gerry, Darcy and Niall together were gently unwrapping and laying out the decorations from their box under the attic stairs.

They decorated the tree together, or rather a small crowd did with critical commentary from those watching about exactly where each piece was positioned. It was a ritual Dale loved, from each individual ornament, particularly the ones David had carved, to the teasing and cheerful bickering about the position of each one and the aesthetic effect of it all. Flynn handed Dale the paper bag from the fair at Fort Kearney, and Paul helped unwrap the clove balls and the twig stars with delight, adding them to the tree. When it was decorated, Flynn turned out the lights in the family room and Paul lit the many candles along the mantel and around the hearth in amongst the swathes of greenery there, and the room took on a gentle, easy light that was softer on the eyes. They were keeping the house unusually quiet, this evening was far calmer than usual when the family got together.

They gathered around the family room – and study and kitchen and a few hardy souls were out on the porch by the Christmas lights in the snow – awaiting the evening broadcast of the carol service from Kings College, and Dale saw Riley take out something rolled from under the coffee table and lay it out. He knelt in front of it by Dale, and Gerry, coming to help him, took a couple of logs from the log basket to hold the edges down.

“I know you can’t read this,” Riley said to Dale, “Don’t try and strain your eyes, this is a map of the Oregon trail. Niall and Darcy sketched it out from what you told us about it and from the books in the study – they did a beautiful job, Darce draws like an artist.”

“Thank you.” Darcy took a seat on the floor beside him, putting several pencils down on the paper. “It’s all the drawing out of stage designs. We were trying to mark out Sarah’s route, but there’s a lot of gaps.”

“Do you know where she started from?” Gerry said hopefully. “We have this kind of space over here marked ‘Wisconsin’ but it seems a bit vague in a ‘here be dragons’ kind of a way.”

“Green Bay.” Dale resisted the urge to squint at the map and make some of it out. “Start from Green Bay. Then come south and south west to Council Bluffs, that’s where they joined the trail itself.”

“And Council Bluffs is where she showed you Clay.” Bear brought a plate over to sit on the hearth stone near Gerry. A small crowd of family was assembling around the map. “That’s the supply town.”

“Don’t look so shocked, darling.” Gerry said gently to Dale. “We’ve all of us known Sarah, long before you found out her name for us. Niall and Wade knew where her wagon was when they were younger than any of us are now, she’s always been part of the ranch. Philip and David would have loved to have known this stuff as much as we do.”

“Green Bay.” Darcy was sketching carefully. “Although I’m guessing some kind of fishing hamlet on the lake rather than the town itself.”

“Yes, the town wasn’t there yet. The trail starts officially from Independence, Missouri, and comes up through Kansas into Nebraska. Sarah’s family came down through what would have been the Minnesota territory to reach it at Council Bluffs. Then from there, through the good ground to Fort Kearney. The desert starts there. trail follows the Platte River across the plains, the points where they crossed the river were important. Most of time her family just forded it with their train, but up by Fort Laramie she’d have seen the first of the ferries operating.”

“And Fort Kearney is where Sarah knew Jesse.”

“Yes. I think he was probably with her train. I don’t know if he started out with them or joined them on the way, or who he belonged to.”

“And Reid.” Riley added. “Poor kid, the one hanging around the fort. Then Fort Kearney to Ash Hollow. The steep drop to lower the wagons down and the fresh water springs. That’s where Hannah was.”

“And Ash Hollow to Fort Laramie.” Niall knelt stiffly on the other side of the table, taking up another pencil. “Which wasn’t Fort Laramie, but Fort John at the time, and right on the curve of the river here. I’ve seen sketches of it. Then the steep way up towards Shoshoni and on to us, and Three Traders.”

And as she left Three Traders, just before the crossing place at the river, a wagon had fallen and Sarah’s journey had ended. No one said it but it hung in the air.

“We don’t know who the other one is,” Darcy leaned on the table, his voice soft. “Dale, have you any idea? There are two little graves in that hollow, we’ve always assumed two children.”

Dale shook his head. “I’ve seen her in the woods with another child once or twice, a little boy. I know Sarah had a little brother. But it might be she just plays in our woods with other kids we know nothing about yet – thousands of children must have passed over our land. It might even be Clay or Jesse or Hannah down there with her, except I think they were particular friends she remembered and wanted to meet again.”

“Is that what you helped her with?” Riley asked shrewdly. 

“I think I less helped than got put firmly to good use.” Dale said ruefully. “Not that I minded.”

Later, with Riley alone, Dale would tell him about David, that David had been there for every child, but with these men who had known and loved David in person, he was never comfortable talking casually about him in this way. It seemed unkind.

“What did they do about Christmas in her time?” Bear’s deep voice said curiously.

“Not much.” Niall said with regret. “James was talking about it last night. There was nothing on the trail at all in winter anyway, it wasn’t passable most of the time for wagons, but in Sarah’s time, the 1840s, Queen Victoria hadn’t made modern Christmas fashionable yet. There weren’t trees or much around gifts, it wasn’t much of a thing.”  

Jake leaned on the back of the sofa, stooping to hook an arm around Dale’s neck and give him a gentle hug. With the obvious unspoken agreement of do not crowd round the man with the head injury, people kept doing this. Quietly coming to say their personal hello to him in their own time.

“If the kids hang around the yard or the pasture at all tonight they’re going to notice the porch and wonder what’s going on. Space shuttles must pass overhead and wonder what’s going on.”

“It looks good, you leave the porch alone.” Gerry told him severely. “Tom, make him behave. And turn up the radio, the carol service is due any minute now. Is it something you’ve listened to before? The Kings College service?”

“No. When I lived in England I mostly attended the real thing at home.” Tom turned up the radio which was explaining the shipping forecast for the English channel at present, and then he came to sit on the hearth, looking down at the map with the rest of them. “The cathedral was beautiful at Christmas. Where’s Windlass Hill in relation to Ash Hollow? We couldn’t figure out how close the two were.”











            The family always stayed up until midnight on Christmas Eve. It was an evening for spending together, for stories and talking by the tree and waiting to see Christmas begin. On this Christmas Eve however, Paul and Flynn were adamant that Dale went upstairs to bed almost immediately after the end of the carols. Dale listened to Flynn ruthlessly fend off Riley, Gerry and several other family members on the landing who were attempting to come and visit him. Paul closed the door on them all, lay on Flynn’s side of the bed, and for a while Dale lay there in his arms which was wonderful in itself, listening to the familiar sounds of Paul’s breathing, and of the home pasture beyond the open window, in a bed he knew intimately well.

“Don’t you think,” Paul said conversationally after a while, and his fingers were sliding gently and rhythmically through Dale’s hair, “you’re ever leaving me at home again while you go and get concussed in a shipyard. If Flynn wants to come on your business trips too he can, but I won’t care if the meeting involves actual bloodshed. If you’re going to be around explosions and getting stuck in awful hotels, I’m going to be there.”

“I spent a lot of the time wishing you were.” Dale said rather shamefacedly. He felt Paul’s hard kiss against his forehead.

“I spent a lot of time wishing I was too. I’m glad you’re home. Are you worried about your vision, honey? What are you thinking about that?”

“Not much at all. It was a bit alarming how much the racket at the ski lodge rattled everything, I understand now what Flynn told me about chaotic neurotransmission. It isn’t handling complex information well yet but it’s settling down fast.”

“I want it settled down completely before you try to read, and we’re going to take that appointment with the neurologist at Jackson to be sure. What level has Flynn had you on?”

Dale sighed. “We never got higher than two. Although I had Flynn with me the whole time, and Jasper too from Ash Hollow onwards. I didn’t have the space to get stressed in.”

“According to Flynn, you worked hard on staying calm and doing everything he asked of you despite everything, and you gave Sarah all the attention you could. He’s very proud of you. We all are. I know how hard it is for you to cope with changes of plan like that, it takes a lot of effort to handle. Although it sounds like it ended up being a trip you wouldn’t have wanted to miss.”

No. Certainly not. Dale thought about it, knowing Paul valued this information as much as he did. They’d shared many of the history books Dale had devoured on the subject.

“So many wagons came over our land. I knew it in theory, I’ve seen the pictures, I’ve read everything in the museum at Jackson, but to stand on the trail and see the places they came through, to know what the river crossings were like, how steep the hills were, what the trading posts were like, what the water was like, how far they had to go between each stopping point - not to read about it but to…”

“See it and feel it.” Paul finished when he trailed off. “Yes, I bet that was powerful stuff. It seems to have made quite an impression on you and Flynn both. Do you know why Flynn is stuffing jeans in the bin by the way?”

“They’re the ones he bought in Kearney, we were a bit short on clean clothes.”

“Oh wait for it.” Paul said dryly. “He says he can’t ride in them?”

“How did you guess?” Dale said, straight faced. Paul burst out laughing and hugged him.

“I knew it! Oh I know, he was looking after you and he had his hands full at the time. I won’t tease him. Much.”









25th December





            Plenty of people always went out on Christmas morning to help with the stock work. The older members of the family got up more slowly, but the house was full and busy, and while the amiable battles and waits for the bathroom and the crowd in the kitchen for the large brunch took place, Flynn kept Dale in bed with him.

“I am sleeping fine,” Dale pointed out to him when Flynn pulled him back down and made it clear they weren’t getting up yet. “I’m eating fine, I have been since we went out to Wisconsin.”

“With effort at times, understandably, but yes.” Flynn agreed.

Dale turned over, rather grouchily settling on his chest. “No withholding anything, no panic attacks, no compulsions,”

“I agree. You’ve handled things extremely well.”

“Which is a level four. Three at the outside.”

“Head injury.” Flynn said without heat.

“Which is fine, and pretty much fixed.”

“Head injury.” Flynn pulled him closer to kiss him. “We’re home so I’m fine with a level three, where you always are when the house is this busy. It’s well deserved, and you’re still not getting up, or charging about this morning. There isn’t anything you could try harder with, this isn’t is about you being stressed. This is about concussion. You’re taking today quietly, without crowds or noise. That’s the end of it.”

“It’s Christmas.”

“Your brain chemistry doesn’t care.”

Grrr. This was one of the admittedly very few downsides of falling desperately in love with a severely over protective Top. And of scaring him half to death in Wisconsin.

They showered and shaved together when it was quiet upstairs, and it was long past eleven when they came down to the kitchen. This morning Dale could make out some of the numbers on the grandfather clock by the stairs, and see most of the detail in the photographs on the mantel; while moving too fast still made things blur it was fading to the point he could move around the house, the kitchen, even find what Paul asked for in the pantry without thinking twice. He and Flynn were eating and watching Paul clear the table when the rush of people who had been out to do the stock work poured up the porch and came into the kitchen. Wade was among them, loudly and cheerfully pointing out that if Riley felt he could park the tractor any better then he was welcome to try, and Darcy, tripping headlong over several boots in the doorway, told Bear in some detail where boots ought to be.

“Stop the racket right now, you’re not doing this around Dale today.” Paul ordered, going to help Darcy up. “Bear, move those boots before someone breaks their necks.”

“They’re not my boots,” Bear protested, his eyes going wide. “I didn’t put them-”

“Anyone could park the tractor better than that, it’s going to take a twenty five point turn to get it out of the door again,” Riley said over the top of Bear. Wade’s snort was loud and disgusted.

“Right. Come outside, right now, and I’ll count. It’ll be a three point turn at the most.”

“Do you know the turning circle on that thing?”

“Both of you outside.” Flynn ordered, getting up. He herded them towards the door, impeded by Bear still arguing about boots and large enough that no one was getting past him, and Darcy, complaining about people who left boots laying around in an attempt to break people’s ankles.

Entertained, Dale glanced up as a hand lightly rested on his arm. It was Niall. He signalled to Dale with little more than a raise of his eyebrows to be quiet, his eyes were dancing in a way that was most inviting, and as Wade began to list his tractor driving credentials and Bear began to protest again that they weren’t his boots anyway, Niall quietly drew Dale out into the hallway.

“Flynn, I’m getting Dale somewhere quieter.”

That sounded far more innocent than Niall looked. Curious, Dale went with him. Niall guided him swiftly around towards the front door. Tom, dressed in heavy outdoor gear, was waiting on the porch with Dale’s boots, coat and hat.

“Quick,” Niall said, letting them out onto the porch and closing the front door very softly behind them. “Get dressed and let’s get out of here. We’re kidnapping you. Merry Christmas.”

Well that sounded like a wholly reprehensible and highly interesting idea.

Dale sat down on the bench by the front door and rapidly pulled his boots and coat on. Further down the porch, Gerry and ‘Lito were loudly shovelling snow from the steps which provided helpful cover from anyone passing in the yard, and ‘Lito caught Dale’s eye and grinned. Riley nipped past them around the side of the house, taking Dale’s arm.

“Warm enough? Come on.”

Niall rapidly donned his own outside gear and Gerry and Lito abandoned the shovels and came to join them. In a group of stetsoned and heavy coated brats, all of whom from a distance would look very much the same, they crossed the yard and reached the pasture unchallenged. Horses were waiting there, tacked up and curious since they’d been out once already this morning to do the stock work. Dale took Hammer’s reins from the fence rail, taking a moment to rub his nose, having spent a week away from him. Hammer shoved his head hard into Dale’s chest in welcome and snorted, nudging until Dale pulled his ears.

“Do you feel ok to ride?” Riley said discreetly to Dale. “I’ll come with you on Hammer if you’re not sure.”

There was no one safer to ride than Hammer. Dale found the stirrup and pulled himself up, with a rush of joy in the day, the snow, the company, Hammer beneath his hands and being extremely and outrageously bad in a way he should not have been enjoying nearly so much. Although not even Flynn could deny that it was beautifully and peacefully quiet out here in the open pasture. Perfect for people with head injuries.   

“I’m fine. Where are we going?”

“Well we thought we probably ought to spring you before you went stir crazy.” Gerry, mounting Flint, moved over to help Niall climb the fence and reach Nekkid’s saddle. On his other side, Tom had competently mounted up on Moo. “Way too many Tops in the house. Besides which there’s something we think you ought to see. Shall we get out of here before Flynn notices where you’re not?”

Riley pulled Snickers in beside Hammer, staying close, and they walked the horses fast down the length of the paddock rail which took them well away from sight of the ranch windows before they turned out into the open home pasture. A couple of miles out into the pasture they saw Boris and Petra, two of the big shire horses, cantering towards them through the thick snow with the white flakes flying from their massive feet. Darcy and Bear were riding them and Riley and the others drew in to let them catch up.

“Anyone notice we’d gone?” Gerry demanded. Bear shook his head, grinning at Dale from under the brim of his Stetson.

“No, no one’s noticed a thing yet. Wade isn’t coming, he covered us getting away, but he’s doing a good job.”

Someone had thought to dig the cairn out of the snow and to clear the space around it. It stood this morning like a frozen beacon. Nearby, the lake was iced over and birds walked on its surface, dusted with blown snow, but the river was still moving as they reached the crossing place, and the horses waded patiently through.

It was warmer amongst the trees. Walking the horses – which they had done all the way, Dale suspected Riley was keeping their pace right down on purpose to avoid jolting him – they went a short way down the path before Riley turned Snickers and waited. This was one of the main paths through the wood that they rode all the time, it was wide and the trees edging it were mostly the aspens that grew freely here, their tall, thin white trunks like pillars. The thin branches rose from the trunks at angles rather like a stark Christmas tree, short and angular and closely clustered. On one of the largest trees beside the trail – Dale looked harder, startled. And then deeply, seriously touched. From the lower branches, maybe from six feet up to about two feet from the ground, small toys hung, tied to the branches with red ribbon. Several small wooden trains. Several rag dolls in delicate dresses. Painted soldiers. Wooden horses. A toy drum with its beater attached to the drum with ribbon. A little xylophone with a beater also hanging beside it. And five wooden stars, each one with a name carefully painted on and varnished for waterproofing. Hannah. Reid. Jesse. Clay, and Sarah.

“You’re going to think we’re mad,” Gerry said conversationally, “But Bear and Riley and I went into Jackson the day before yesterday and raided one of the toy shops, and Bear made the stars. It seemed… only right. Under the circumstances.”

Oh it was right. Dale slid down from Hammer’s saddle to go to the tree, running his fingers lightly over one or two of the toys. The carving and varnishing of the stars was very much Bear’s work, Dale knew his style: there were door panels on the ranch that looked like this, but these were truly beautiful. Carefully, lovingly shaped and sanded to perfect smoothness, and the lettering of the painted names was Darcy’s delicate looping handwriting, the kind he put in Christmas and birthday cards. Dale looked up to find Bear, swallowing on the warmth of the smile Bear gave him. Riley had dismounted too. Dale felt Snickers huff against his shoulders and Riley reached past him to straighten one of the trains. Wooden toys. Things that a child of 1848 would recognise. That had Riley’s touch all over it. Unable to say anything at all, Dale put an arm around his waist and Riley returned the hug.

“Do you need to do anything for them to be able to find it? I know you see Sarah most often at the crossing place and by the lake, we thought this was a private spot nearest to her favourite places. Just don’t get cold for pete’s sake, we’re probably all in enough trouble.”

The energy coming off this little group in the woods, men of every generation from this household, was warm and bright and Dale could feel it lifting and pulling on him. Their emotion, their shared care and intention, their thought for her created that energy and it was painted all over this tree. If Dale let his eyes slide out of focus and looked, it was around every toy Riley and the others had handled and hung here. It shone. Like the bright energy of Sarah herself all the way across the snow blown prairie from Wisconsin, lighting up each place they stopped.

“She’ll have no trouble finding this.” Dale said with conviction. “She’ll feel it from miles away.”

“What’s funny?” Riley said under his breath to them as Dale explored the tree. “You’re trying not to laugh, I can see you doing it.”

“Do you know what the Oregon Way is?” Dale gently straightened one of the little dolls.

“Of course I do. The trail. You just came down it.” Riley gave him a sideways look, somewhat concerned. “I thought you were over the concussion?”

“No. Not the trail, the way. It was something Philip believed in. I’ll explain another time. But it’s…” Dale looked again at the tree. “…perfect. You’re doing it well.”









He and Riley walked their way out of the woods, leading Snickers and Hammer. It was mostly for the sheer pleasure of walking through the snowy woods on Christmas morning, although the others, who lacked a mounting block or fence, were older and who didn’t put the regular practice in on climbing up on some fairly tall horses, didn’t take the risk of getting down. They rode, slowly in a group, walking the horses through the snow to the crossing place. Dale stood there with Riley, watching the horses walk through the flowing water one by one ahead of them.

Across the pasture, on the frozen lake, five children were kneeling on the ice, peering with fascination through to the water beneath. Dale recognised each small face. Sarah looked up at him, and her smile was blazing.

“They’re here, aren’t they?” Riley said softly behind him, noticing where he was gazing. Dale gave him a discreet nod.

“Yes. All of them.”

Four of them had never set foot on ranch land in their lifetimes. This had always been Sarah’s place to visit and play, but the guests she had brought home seemed to be enjoying themselves here.

He and Riley mounted up and walked the horses across the crossing place and into the snowy pasture, joining the crowd of other brats of all ages who waited for them. Niall, thin but upright in the saddle, who had known these woods when Philip was young and he and David were still building the house. Bear and Gerry and Riley who had been so young here, not much more than boys. Darcy, who was as good at secrets as anyone else on this ranch. ‘Lito, Tom and himself, from another continent, also travellers. Strangers made welcome on this layered land that welcomed the brave, the determined, the adventurous, whoever they were.

As they crossed the pasture and headed home, Dale saw the children cross the river over the shallow crossing place stones, and run together into the woods.







https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vOQ_zipVM4





Merry Christmas 2018!

R&R