Sunday, December 20, 2009

Eagle Canyon



Eagle Canyon


August 1991


"…..We did, in fact, occupy rather a lot of one row near the front, and it was quite obvious that he was startled by how many of us were there. Our explanation that to observe him graduate first in his class was something we did not intend to miss, did not seem to make him any less surprised. We took him to the Victoria hotel for dinner that evening, which has not changed in the slightest, and  infallibly reminds me of you dancing with the Ambassador's wife who stole your tie. It occurred to me how much times had changed if not the décor, when Luath and Flynn waltzed together on the dance floor without drawing a second glance from the other couples save those you would expect towards Luath and Flynn wearing dinner jackets. As Gerry commented, Flynn scrubs up remarkably well. Professor Edwards joined us and was slightly wide eyed…"

Most likely, Philip thought, at the sheer number of men of various ages seated around the table, who politely rose in order to shake his hand.

"Is this the full set?" Edwards asked as he sat down. "I was keen to meet your Native American lad after all I've heard of him."

Philip smiled, an eye still on Luath and Flynn, who were a good match in height as well as surprisingly graceful dancers, turning on the polished dance floor among the other couples.

"Not even Paul was able to persuade Jasper on to a plane. No, this is not the full 'set'. More a delegation."

"I'll apologise, but I look at this lot and think harem." Edwards said under his breath, with a good deal of fervent admiration. "Is there anywhere you don't travel without an escort of-"

He trailed off, and Philip, looking around the table, understood. With a wide age range that included several rather beautiful young men, including the two on the dance floor, all of them immaculate and well mannered, and all the more perfectly set in the restrained and classic beauty of the Victorian hotel, he thought himself that they made a stunning picture.

"It's quite amazing how at least one of them always happens to be wherever I decide to go," he said dryly to Edwards. "Quite eerie in fact. Although for some reason they all make exceptionally good attaches."

"May I pour you a drink, Professor?" Paul invited from Edwards' other side, and looked up as Flynn and Luath came back to the table, Luath taking Roger's hand and Flynn, with a slightly wicked look, appropriating Paul's.

"I don't dance," Paul warned him, not resisting very much and handing the bottle of wine to Philip, "I really don't dance,"

"I'm a strong lead." Flynn snagged his other hand and pulled him to his feet, giving a brief and very sincere smile to Edwards.

"Hallo Professor."

Ash took Gerry's hand and followed them, and Philip watched Flynn spin Paul by one hand, making Paul laugh. He poured wine into Edwards' cup, catching Edwards' eye on Flynn.

"You'd never know him for the same boy." Edwards commented, picking up his glass. Philip took his own, touching it lightly to Edwards'.

"We owe you a very great deal for sending him to us. I hope you've received your due from the University for training such a successful student."

"His papers certainly haven't gone un noticed." Edwards agreed. "But he's still not answering me about his post graduate courses, I've had that conversation with him about four times and you just don't get information out of Flynn that he doesn't want to give you. I've been a clinical psychologist for thirty years and I still can't prise an answer out of him."

"Possibly he doesn't yet know the answer." Philip said calmly. Flynn, who was still boy enough to be glorying in the height and muscle he was still in the process of acquiring, was turning and spinning Paul without the slightest difficulty, and Paul was still laughing in the way that only Flynn ever got him to do. Philip, who had seen Paul's quietness and the growing sense of age that had hung around him only a couple of years ago before Flynn and Jasper came to the ranch, was reminded again of Paul as he had been at twenty, long legged, vivacious, dark haired and dark eyed, who swept through the muddle of the household leaving order in his wake, and who could persuade David to helpless and exasperated compliance with anything Paul asked of him.

"Has he spoken to you about it?" Edwards demanded. Philip shook his head.

"Not yet."

"If he wants an internship he needs to apply soon." Edwards said darkly. Philip smiled.

"As I'm sure he's aware."

"You're as bad as he is." Edwards informed him. "Did you have any contact at all from his family? I noticed Flynn didn't register any New Zealand addresses for invitations to the ceremony."

"I don't believe they know where he is." Philip said mildly. "It's seemed rather too sensitive a time to ask."





*





"As near as I can tell." Paul collected the stack of books to one side to polish the study desk directly in front of Philip, and Philip sat back to allow him access, picking up the still steaming cup of tea Paul had brought him.

"I see."

"Although I've never seen anything written down for Jasper at all, I'm not sure if he actually has any documentation. And Flynn has been at college all term time. Who else is going to do it? Come to that, who has more of a responsibility than us? It's important for both of them and I don't care if they both hate it."

And when Paul spoke that firmly, everyone in this house, including Philip, listened. Philip, who knew and loved Paul, sipped tea, watching him wipe the crystal ink wells one at a time.

"In the lack of evidence, what do you feel best to do?"

"Flynn is home on the sixteenth, which is a Tuesday." Paul put the ink wells back. "And the twenty first is a special day for us anyway. I thought it was perfect."

Philip inclined his head, unsurprised. "Which of course you organised with the others the night of Flynn's graduation."  

"That's a date Gerry can be here, Wade and Charlie are free, a few of the others," Paul said, unabashed.

"How many of the others?" Philip put the cup down and held out a hand. "Paul, do stop polishing and give me the list."

"Virtually everyone except James." Paul drew the list from a pocket and Philip unfolded it, scanning down. "And Evan, and Niall wasn't sure."

"Leave it with me, I'm sure I can convince them." Philip put the list on the desk, and smiled as Paul wrapped an arm around his neck and kissed his cheek. "I'm quite sure too that you've already made all the arrangements, but do feel free to make any more you feel necessary."

Where Jasper and Flynn were concerned, Paul's natural gift for organisation, something Philip had been both marvelling at and depending on for well over a decade, appeared to excel itself. He caught Paul's hand, holding it before Paul could remove his now empty cup and saucer.

"How is Jasper, do you think?"

He had been plotting with this man for years; Paul knew exactly what he meant.

"Waiting." he said candidly. "He always misses Flynn during term time."

That was a rather discreet way of putting it in Philip's opinion.

"What about you?" he asked.

Paul gave him a cheerful shrug that did not fool Philip in the slightest.

"Oh I've got a house full of people for company, I'm all right. I write to Flynn. Occasionally he even writes back."

Oh Paul, do you really think I'm blind?

Aware he was not likely to get any more, Philip returned Paul's smile and let him go. It was Jasper he heard talking in the kitchen with Paul late at night when the others were in bed and Paul liked to straighten the kitchen ready for the morning. Paul who walked down with Jasper to lock the barns at night. There was almost a visible hole between them, ready and waiting for a blunt and now qualified New Zealander psychologist to come home.

Philip sat back in his chair, a faint smile touching his lips at the thought of his wild boy standing on the platform at the University with the bull headed, Charge! expression on his face, accepting the scroll. And of another boy, with much darker hair and stronger features, who down to Paul's demanding, coaxing and downright insisting, now lived in the house with them and was as much a part of the family as anyone else here, if a little quieter. There wasn't one of the brats who didn't respond to him; he brought the same calm sense to them that he did when he was handling any other live creature on the ranch, and they trusted him in the same instinctive way.

Paul was quite right; the act was important. David had known and understood such things and had impressed the importance of it on his partner; mostly by taking and showing him. David found doing much easier than explaining. On instinct, Philip took a key from his desk and opened a quietly hidden drawer in the kneehole of the desk, taking it from it an item which he turned over in his palm.

Very well my boy. Let us see how apt a pupil of yours I prove to be.




*





"It is hard to truly know what roots Jasper has. From what little I can surmise, the man he called 'Grandfather' was more likely to have been in fact his great grandfather, and the man lived as his own grandfather must have done when he escaped from the clearance of the Cherokee tribe from Virginia. If there were ever others that were with him, Jasper does not remember them. He simply remembers the old man and the forest, and there is a particular tone in his voice when he speaks of him, that says just as much as the depth of the mark the man made on him. There was, I believe, no school or learning, or much contact with the outside world at all when he was a child. The old man taught him on the land, with their few crops and animals and their hunting. When he was twelve or thirteen and the man was frail, Jasper went down to the farms and hired himself out, where I assume they took him for a much older boy, walking miles each day from work to the cabin. He was barely fifteen when the old man died, and from what he tells me, he burned the cabin alone, with what he knew of the rites of the tribe. The Cherokee do not gather material possessions, and nothing to them exceeds the importance of the family."


He was on the river bank when Philip saw him through the trees, naked in the early light of the morning, laying the last of his clothes neatly on the grass before he stepped, unflinching, down into the running water of the river. Philip dismounted and tied up the reins of the mare he rode, letting her go to lower her nose into the still dew-wet grass and graze. Walking through the trees to the bank, Philip saw Jasper standing straight in the river, the water at his waist, facing the direction of the rising sun and the running water. He gathered water in his hands and raised it to his face, then over his arms, and over his dark head where his hair already gleamed. On the bank, quiet and watching him, Flynn sat with his sandy hair wild and his clothes damp in a way that told their own story.

"Will you two ever grow out of wandering all night?" Philip asked him softly enough not to disturb Jasper, taking a seat on the grass. Flynn glanced up without surprise, giving him a quick smile of welcome.

"No sir. Not in weather like this."

And not when he was fresh from a city he in a dispassionate way, detested. Philip recognised the disdain in his voice and his face when he so much as thought of college. The reality of urban living had not been quite what Flynn had intended three years ago when he tried to escape a farming life.

Some way off from them, Jasper ducked under the flowing water, disappearing entirely from sight for a minute.

"I've made my decision regarding further study, sir." Flynn said abruptly. Philip merely nodded, waiting, and Flynn watched Jasper emerge from the river, water running off him in sparkling drops like glass as the sun lit the water.

"I can't accept your offer. It isn't for you to pay for anything I do, and the grants won't apply now I've taken US citizenship."

"Are we to continue this nonsense for very much longer?" Philip said plaintively.

Flynn shook his head, looking down at his clasped hands. "It isn't nonsense, sir. I'm not your responsibility."

"Then how would you care to put it?" Philip invited. "My dear boy, this is misplaced pride and this is obstinacy. Both of which we've discussed many times, yet obviously still not in sufficient detail. The facts of the matter are that I may do whatever I like, and I have yet to see a better investment. If I have left you in any doubts regarding your responsibilities towards us…?"

"No sir," Flynn said hastily, "No, not at all."

Philip turned his gaze back to the river, giving that threat a moment or two to make its full impact felt.

"Tell me what you want to do, Flynn?"

"I don't know, sir."

The boy gave a whole new meaning to the word 'stubborn'. Philip watched Jasper cross the grass to them and pick up his shirt, using it to dry his face. He was tanned more darkly than Flynn, and the tan lines sharply stopped at the waist, a mark of the time he spent shirtless through the summer. The Wyoming high season here was warm, but with the breezes from the mountains that kept their freshness; it was never unbearably hot even now in August. Where Flynn's eyes were still reserved and contained, even after several years here, Jasper's were as calm as they were watchful. He was already waiting and Philip came directly to the point.

"I have a job for you two." he said, leaving the matter of Flynn's studies for now. "Something private. I'd like you to leave as soon as possible this morning."

They were both watching him, Flynn with the sharply shrewd look that meant he was concerned, Jasper with mild interest that was a cover for goodness only knew what. There were depths to Jasper that Philip thought he rarely let anyone plumb except Flynn, and in other very different ways, Paul.

"There is," he told them, "A particular point at the top of Eagle Canyon, down beyond the remains of the village. It was a place of significance to David, I believe he went there with friends when there were still Shoshone in the area. I haven't had the heart to part with this before now-"

The boys were watching as he withdrew the item from his pocket. It was old and tarnished and shone in the early morning sunlight, a large and slightly misshapen metal disc on a leather thong, hung alongside several feathers and beads and a small figurine – a bird, carved from stone.

"An eagle." Philip said, turning the charm over in his fingers with love. "This doesn't belong to me. I'd like it to go to – well, where David would have felt was right for it. Jasper, I'm sure you'll know where to put it when you get there. There were carvings. David took me up there several times, and I remember the carvings."

"If you wanted to go yourself and I could help, sir…..?" Flynn began. Philip smiled and dropped a hand on his knee.

"If I could make the climb it would be a pleasure to show you myself. But it wasn't an easy climb when I was thirty; I wouldn't get half way up there now. It's a young man's place. You two go."

He looked for a moment more at the little charm in his hand, his thumb rubbing lightly over the carved lines of the eagle, then he closed his hand and held it out, releasing the charm into Jasper's palm.

"I won't expect to see you back before tomorrow afternoon."

He said nothing else, just got up and returned to his horse, leaving the two boys together under the trees by the river.




*





They often went for miles without conversation. It wasn't necessary. Jasper had a knack for knowing where to go on this ranch; he knew secrets and places that no one else on the land appeared to find, and Flynn followed him without question. It wasn't the first time Jasper had brought him to this particular part of the land either. The Shoshone tribe had left their mark here when they moved on. The burial ground and the village were to Jasper places where he came to seek peace or other memories Flynn could feel from him, even if Jasper didn't actually want to talk about them. On this day however, Jasper led them beyond the village and on up towards the rocky canyons where the rocks began to arch over head. A place Flynn had never gone before.

"How do you know where it is?" he asked as they turned the horses into a narrow and rocky gorge. Jasper didn't look round.

"There's a breeding pair that nest there."

Jasper would know such things. He knew where the wolf packs roamed and where the elk crossed their land, he spent hours watching in the same way Flynn watched the horse herds.

"Besides," Jasper said more softly, "Philip told me about Eagle Canyon."

Of course. Flynn remembered a time when Jasper still lived in the barn up on the tops, when a few times he had seen from a distance, Philip and Jasper sitting together on the hillside. Jasper's grandfather had taught Jasper of oral memory, stories he had told Jasper all his childhood that he had learned in his own childhood, and Flynn had no doubt that Philip knew it too. Philip seemed to know the way into the heart of every man he drew on to this land.

"What's significant about it?" he asked, tipping his head back to watch the bird drifting high above them, wings spread wide. Jasper was watching it too and only shook his head.

"You'll see."






It was past mid day when they left the horses, found the narrow trail that led steeply upwards, and began to make their way, staying close and mostly in silence, save for an occasional hand that caught and pushed or pulled, or two bodies that braced together against the rock while they caught their breath and found a better grip.   

It was well over an hour later when sweating, aching, scratched and bruised from the climb, that they finally looked upwards at a vertical, smooth face of rock leading up to the very top of the peak.

Flynn reached up as far as possible, running his fingers over the wall, and glanced back to Jasper.

"That's doable if we really had to, but it's lethal. Better to find another way around."

"This was a waterfall once." Jasper had long since peeled off his shirt, careless of scratches, and it was tied around his waist as he edged to the side of the trail, picking his footing carefully to look. "We've followed the path in the stone this far, but there's no mark in the rock up there. The water came another way."

Flynn followed, taking a moment to stretch his back and neck while he studied the path as best as was possible on the narrow and rather perilous part of the rock they stood on. After a minute, he heard Jasper laugh, and then without warning, there was no sign of Jasper on the trail. He had disappeared so completely that Flynn stood baffled before he followed.

"Jas?"

"Look."

Jasper's voice was nearby, and slightly below him. Flynn carefully felt for handholds and climbed off the trail onto the rocky surface to the side, and after a few steps he saw the curve in the rock, invisible from the trail but easy enough for a fit man. He negotiated the curve and saw Jasper in the natural basin in the rock, a place that must have been a pool once, waiting calmly with his hands on his hips. Daylight came from beyond him. Flynn climbed around the edge of the rock and swung down into the cave, and followed Jasper up the other side onto a new trail still steep and rocky that they often climbed rather than walked, but shallower than the trail they had come from.

"There are carvings on the rocks." he commented to Jasper as they paused for breath. "That's the second I've seen."

"If this place is what I think it is," Jasper told him, "We'll see more."

"What do you think it is?" Flynn looked up as far as possible at the rock still steep above them. "Is this a burial ground?"

Jasper shook his head, once more beginning to climb.

"Somewhere up here there will still be water."

There was. The trail passed several times through open caverns in the rock face, each one by degrees cooler and damper, and in one at last there was the slow, steady sound of dripping. Flynn followed it to a small natural channel in the rock where water dropped slowly, one drop at a time, from some internal fault line, rain water easing down inside the canyon, to gather in this shallow, clear pool that in turn dripped out into some other fault line taking it down slowly through the rock to ground level.

He heard Jasper murmur something beside him, then Jasper lightly touched his shoulder. Flynn watched him kneel and knew the way he scooped his hands into the water – it was something he had seen Jasper do in the running water of the streams and the rivers as long as he had known him, and he knew it was an action Jasper would repeat seven times in sequence. He waited, dripping when he was finished, and Flynn, understanding, put his own hands down to the icy water and followed the actions himself. Seven times to lift the water to his face, over his head, to his arms. He knew what it meant. It was something he had long since done with Jasper on the nights they came to the village or the burial ground.

When he followed Jasper out of the cavern into the sunlight again, the light seemed brighter and even the few cottonwood trees barely rustled. They walked up onto a long, low plateau facing east, grassy and with smoke stains against the wall of the rock with a circle of stones laid around it. Flynn paused, looking down at the stains and the ashes. Jasper slipped the bag he carried from his back and reached to take Flynn's, dropping them both on the grass.

"In some tribes," Jasper said slowly, as they walked on through the thicket of trees ahead, that led upwards and to the west, "when a man became a recognised warrior – or a teenager became recognised as a man – there were certain rituals. Some went out to hunt an animal. Some were sent on journeys or quests for an animal. Sometimes they came seeking dreams and to have their adult name revealed. The tribe followed the rites of the land."

"They sent their boys up here?" Flynn paused to look at another carving on a tree trunk, deeply etched and so old it shone grey.

"Eagle Canyon." Jasper said simply.

Flynn looked at him, and Jasper began to climb again, talking slowly in bursts as he caught his breath.

"In tribal mythology – many tribes – the eagle flies higher than any other bird, and stays on the wing longer. It knows more of the sky than any other living thing, and the sky is an element of the Spirit. Because the eagle sees from the sky it shares the same – clarity? - of perspective, as the Spirit does. It's believed that eagles see things as they truly are."

Flynn caught his arm as he lost his grip, slipping for a moment, and Jasper steadied himself and returned the grip as Flynn followed him up the steep, rocky shelf.

"Eagles are treated with reverence. This was a site where eagles nested. To the Shoshone here it was absolutely sacred, and invested with the qualities belonging to the eagles – wisdom, strength, courage. Freedom."

The shelf came up into another thicket of trees. Flynn walked with Jasper out of the thin, craggy woodland and the world abruptly appeared before them.

The peak stood so high that the plains and pastures and foothills below were dwarfed, showing a clear view across to the mountains with their snowed tops on the horizon.
For moments they simply stood, thunderstruck.

It is believed that eagles see things as they truly are.

If that were true then there could be no more beautiful view of the ranch.

At last  Jasper stooped to look more closely at one carved rock by the trees, touching it gently with his fingers, then he went to another near the edge of the peak. Flynn followed him, looking down at the sheer rock below.

"That's the way we thought about climbing. It would have brought us up here."

"I can't read the script," Jasper straightened to stand beside him, "But there are two of these, one here and one on the path we took. Roughly put, I would imagine they point out that one way is a path dependent on courage or will. The other path is dependent on thought."

Flynn looked at him and Jasper shrugged.

"So the path is what a man chooses it to be. He sets his own challenge."

There were no few carvings on the rocks here. Some more roughly done than others, and Flynn had a sudden vision of teenaged boys here alone on this small peak over centuries, crouched to scratch the designs into the permanency of the stone. If Jasper knew their meaning, he didn't explain, but there were no few scraped outlines of birds on the rocks. And beyond them was the view, wide, astounding, the world laid out below them in intense colours as though somehow up here the air was clearer. It was hard to tear your eyes away from.

It was a long time before Jasper drew the old charm from his pocket, with its feathers and the small metal disc with the eagle engraving, turning the charm over in his palm as Philip had done.

"This one is an eagle feather." he said when Flynn came to look. "Someone must have given it to David."

Flynn glanced up at him and Jasper responded to the silent question, stroking a very gentle finger along a mottled black and white feather. He was speaking softly, as others might speak in a cathedral or by an altar.

"Being given – or finding – an eagle feather is one of the most precious gifts anyone can receive. It's seen as a high honour. Usually for valour."

"What does the charm mean?" Flynn asked him. Jasper shrugged a little, looking down at the disc.

"Philip told me once that David was given the eagle picture when the tribe moved on and left the land. Philip didn't know any more than that but – I'd take a guess that because David owned this land and was a friend of – well, whoever the remains of the tribe consisted of I suppose. It was probably a symbol of guardianship. They left the protection of the burial ground and their sacred ground to him. By their beliefs – it means the eagle sees all, it's a watchman."

"Is it something Philip should give back?" Flynn said softly. "If it was given to David to keep for them?"

Jasper shook his head. "The feather was given to David. Philip's right that it doesn't belong to him. And he doesn't need the token to prove what he inherited. Eagles mate for life."

Flynn didn't question it, standing with Jasper and looking with him at the small rope of feathers and beads in his hand. He had never met David, nor ever felt so closely familiar with someone whose face he had never actually known. It was impossible to know Philip without knowing David.

"What will you do with it?"

"There's other offerings here." Jasper nodded at the ground and Flynn followed his gaze, seeing several small cairns of stone stacked against the rock walls and near the scrubby woodland.

They gathered the rocks together, stacking them in the neat way the others were stacked, and when the cairn was half built, Jasper laid the charm inside. He didn't seem able to go on after that. It was hard to do for Philip, whom they both fiercely loved, knowing what he parted with and what this act meant to him in a place he wouldn't come to again. It was a goodbye he had entrusted them to make on his behalf. Flynn stacked the rest of the cairn with his own throat tight, and when the last stone was laid, he sat down on the thin grass and put an arm around Jasper's bony shoulders, watching Jasper fold his arms on his knees and lay his head on his arms.

He didn't make a sound, but several minutes later Flynn felt the first tremor run through him. When he pulled, Jasper curled against him and Flynn wrapped his body tightly around Jasper's, holding him while he wept hard and silently, and not for Philip or David. Flynn, stroking his dark hair slowly, didn't need to be told. These were tears for an old man whose spirit walked the Virginia woods, not Wyoming pastures, and Flynn wondered silently if they had ever been shed before. And if Philip knew that.

Of course Philip knew that.

Jasper, with his soft Virginia accent, had hired out as a labourer and a wrangler all his working life, and he here lived the same westernised life he had been living when Philip first found him in Texas, leaving the traditions of his childhood almost entirely behind. The blurred line between boyhood and manhood for him had been passed early, and without the old man. Unseen, unmarked, unrecognised by anyone. Except by Philip, here, in this place that Jasper understood.

This charmed place, this peak, this astounding view – this was the doorway into manhood for the people who had loved this land for centuries. Someone of that tribe had brought David here, to their sacred place, and introduced him to the eagles, and to the eagle view of the world, formally recognising him as a man of their tribe. And in turn as was his right, David had brought Philip, and now Philip sent Jasper. He sent both of them, to understand what this peak meant, on an errand so personal to him.  

Blood of my blood, son of the people of this land.

Flynn blinked, for a moment seeing the ground drop away under an aeroplane wing, leaving New Zealand ground behind for the first sight of shore that was America. He had taken that as his transition to manhood, as if it was something merely geographical, part of an angry act of independence. But if he was honest, the first true step towards even comprehending what it meant to be a man had come in front of a dusty wooden frame arch over a track from a road in the middle of nowhere, that looked like any other farm track anywhere in the world, where the bus dumped him three years ago with a rucksack and the words carved into the sign above him read: Falls Chance Ranch.

It was something he had seen Jasper do but he had never before fully understood what Jasper told him, about the strength of intent within the action. He let Jasper go and got up, going to crouch beside the rock face to pull his pocket knife out, flipping open a blade and running it briskly across the pad of flesh on his palm below his thumb. For a minute he watched, flexing his hand to make the blood well faster and thicker, then closed his fist gently above the stone and let the blood drip on to it.

Blood of my blood. Blood of our blood.  

He heard Jasper's voice if he didn't understand the words. Jasper had told him once that he was afraid the words were garbled and quite likely incomprehensible. They were simply what a child remembered of an old man's speech, but those words came from the deepest part of Jasper. A moment later Flynn saw Jasper's hand near to his, the blood dripping slowly close to his on to the rock, leaving the small, faint stains near other stains left by other men. And then Jasper reached his hand over, took Flynn's bloody one in his own and squeezed gently.





*





It was late afternoon on the following day when they came from the home pastures towards the house, turned their tired horses into the corral and put away their tack. The yard was quiet, which was not at all unusual for this time of day when everyone was out working, and the sense of peace from the peak appeared to have extended to cover the pastures and the house itself.

It was when they emerged from the tack room and out of the stable door that they saw the men who had silently gathered in the yard, in pairs and groups, glasses in hand, and a cheer erupted loud enough to make Jasper and Flynn collide hard in the stable doorway in shock. Philip, standing calmly on the porch in the middle of a crowd, raised his glass to both of them, and Paul, coming down the steps ahead of several others including Gerry and Roger, got to Jasper and Flynn first and cupped a hand to each face, kissing them swiftly, one after the other.

"Happy twenty first birthdays, both of you. Come and get a drink."

"Now I'll lock the stable, and you block the way to the corral." Luath added, putting Gerry out of his way to kiss Flynn. "Happy birthday, brat."

Flynn looked poleaxed, but if Luath had hold of him, Paul knew he would be civilised. Jasper had an armful of excited Roger with Gerry right behind him, and the yard was full of people acting as most of them did on the rare occasions there was a gathering like this. The atmosphere had been growing increasingly rowdy since six o clock this morning when the first plane came in and the first cars began to arrive.

For the next few hours, Paul mostly found himself organising both food and sleeping places; by dark, the buffet spread out in the kitchen looked as though a swarm of locusts had passed through it, and the cake on the table was reduced to an eighth of its original size.

By midnight, most of the couples had started to retire to the bunkhouse and the bedrooms, including the third floor rooms in the house that were mostly only ever used for full family parties. In the family room, Philip was sitting with a group of the older men, those that remembered David, and Paul took them a tray of tea before he went outside. On the porch Roger was curled on Luath's lap with Darcy on the swing beside them, the three of them saying nothing but rocking slowly and watching the fireflies out towards the home pasture. They didn't look round, and Paul walked down the steps and out towards the training paddock and the long line of paddocks that extended beyond it.

The lights were on in the bunkhouse – the couples staying there were getting ready for bed and he heard a brief burst of laughter across the pasture from one of the open windows – but his eyes were on two shadowy outlines by the clysdales' paddock at the far end of the line, one leaning on the fence, one seated up on the rail, both of whom looked up, a space left ready and waiting for him between them.   




"……It was an evening you would have thoroughly enjoyed, and which I have no doubt you would have enlivened no end. I confess I missed both the fights, the singing, and the time you succeeded in no less than three sprained ankles and a bloody nose by inciting certain people to walk the garage ridgepole while under the influence. Flynn approached me this morning with a decision he has reached, and which he admitted to me in the style of facing a firing squad. The words were forced out like bullets. His news was to my great relief as Paul and Jasper miss him so badly while he is away, and I suspect the only reason I do not fret so much over Flynn's missing them is because I do not have to watch him do it. He asked my permission to remain and work here indefinitely. He intends to continue his studies by correspondence; something Edwards is unhappy about but will not refuse him- but as he very stiffly explained to me, this is his home and he prefers to devote himself to the ranch and the horses and the work of the family.

It has taken some years, David, but where Flynn is concerned, I believe we have finally won the war.

Happy birthday my darling."




~



June 1997



It was dark outside in the yard, and men were still gathered on the porch, glasses in hand. The chatter and occasional bursts of laughter were audible at the corral where Ash had wandered, picking out Luath's tall frame leaning against the rail and watching the shadowy figures of the horses. He glanced up at Ash's soft footfall on the grass and raised his glass a little in sardonic salute.

"Escaping the mayhem?"

"I thought for a nineteenth birthday it was rather decorous." Ash leaned on the fence beside him, cradling his glass between his fingers. "At this age, Gerry would have been heading off to the nearest wild bar to paint the town red, and probably himself too."

"Flynn wouldn't allow it." Luath said dryly. Ash nodded slowly, twirling his glass.

"Although apparently several people offered to take Riley to Cheyenne or Jackson for the evening, but this was what Ri wanted. A family party, at home, perfectly happy to drink soda and fruit juice instead of beer or wine – which I must say I think is sensible of Philip considering the sheer number of men here."

"Philip could control it with no difficulty at all." Luath straightened up from the rail, stretching big shoulders. "I'd guess that was Flynn again. Riley is only nineteen."

"Which is different to fifteen." Ash said mildly.

He saw Luath look at him; one of Luath's long, appraising and unreadable looks. This big man was inscrutable and Ash, having known him since his first visit to the ranch some years before, had a great deal of respect for his opinion of the other members of the ranch family.

"Gerry has commented," he said casually, "just how – how can I put this?"

"Protective." Luath said without expression.

"Parental might be another relevant term," Ash agreed. "How protectively parental Flynn appears to be regarding Riley. Which of course is very understandable considering Riley was so young when he first came here."

But it's been three years.

He knew Luath heard the unspoken sentence.

"I understand Riley had very little experience of parenting," he went on casually, "Of any kind, and he was delighted for everyone here to step into the gap, but then Gerry wasn't so much older when he first came here. Philip doesn't appear to see Riley in that light – I hear he's already had bachelors numbers one and two visit in the last few months, although Riley wasn't interested. I suppose nineteen is a little young for that."

"It has very little to do with age." Luath said succinctly, and Ash thought, not for the first time, that there was no little protectiveness in Luath for Flynn. In his experience, this family stuck together like glue. The inlaws were always welcomed, whole heartedly, but those who belonged had a subtle difference.

Taking the hint, Ash left well enough alone and looked towards the porch at the sound of  Riley's laugh above the rumble of voices. He stood with an arm around Jasper's waist, leaning against him while they stood with the group they were talking to, shaking his hair back from his eyes and smiling at something Paul was saying.
His face was alive, he looked anything but a bored and disenchanted teenager, and he looked – as Ash thought he always looked – radiantly happy. Riley didn't trouble to hide much of what he was feeling.

Flynn, standing with Philip and another group at the far end of the porch, had also glanced up at the sound of Riley's voice, and Ash found himself remembering something Gerry had inelegantly but accurately commented on while they were dressing this morning.

"Any guy who tries dating Riley is going to be interviewed by Philip and then Flynn, and God help him because Flynn will interrogate the crap out of him. Can you imagine the rules he'd lay down for anyone trying to date Riley? Not to mention what he'll do with the body if the guy upsets Ri in any way?"

Having seen Riley hurl himself at Flynn just three hours ago when they first sprung this party on him, and seen the way Flynn swung him off his feet to give him a crushing hug, Ash had no difficulty believing it. And where Flynn was, you could bet on Jasper and Paul being right behind him. But the lively, intelligent young man on the porch, now the owner of an honor-roll graduation from high school and with a confidence and maturity that could make him at times seem older than only nineteen today, was a very far cry from the withdrawn, gangly fifteen year old Ash had first met, who dogged Flynn's steps like a puppy and lived to spend his every waking moment with the horses.

"But Ri doesn't care," Gerry had said, surprised when Ash pointed this out. "Haven't you noticed?"

Long used to studying this family, and the currents of information that ran through it, Ash agreed; there were things that the Top stream of the family tended not to notice at all.





*






The kitchen, as it usually was at dinnertime in this house, was full of people milling about, which really should have been enough of a crowd not to be noticed in. Philip in his place at the head of the table was placidly ensconced behind his newspaper and didn't look up, but Flynn, standing like a monolith in the middle of it all, had his hands on his hips with a look that said he'd been watching since Riley walked across from the stables. The other brats at least occasionally managed to slip something by him, but Flynn missed nothing whatsoever where Riley was concerned. It was like living with a particularly critical hawk.

Working hard on pretending he hadn't noticed Flynn or his glaring, Riley eased off his boots in the doorway and added them – neatly – to the rows of others, and headed towards the bathroom. Flynn's voice stopped him before he was half way there.

"And where have you been? I was about to come looking for you."

"Just finishing up some work with Liberace." Riley said lightly, turning on the taps to wash his hands. Flynn followed him to the bathroom door, not sounding at all pacified.

"Where exactly? Because I looked and couldn't see you."

Damn, I thought you were busy.

Riley pinned cheerfulness into his voice and didn't look up from the sink. It rarely worked but it was worth a try.

"I took a walk down the driveway with him-"

"How many miles down?" Flynn interrupted.

The man was fricking psychic. Riley splashed and dried his face, speaking mostly to the towel. "I don't know, does it matter?"

"Don't make me ask again." Flynn warned.

If you knew Flynn as well as Riley knew Flynn, there was no question that this was battle doomed to be lost. Riley slung the towel over the rail and surrendered, not trying to hide the snap in his voice.

"Ok, fine. Two."

"Then you're banned from the colts for two days." Flynn said flatly. Riley spun around on him, outraged.  

"What?  Why?"

"You know very well why." Flynn said shortly, "And when it comes to the colts you'll learn to do as I say."

"Seig fricking heil." Riley snapped back, and Flynn moved so fast the swat landed before Riley realised it was coming. It was hard, and it stung, and it subdued just as much as Flynn's glare from dark green eyes several inches above Riley's own. The man was as big as he was annoying.

"I know what to do with the damned colts, and you know I'm careful." Riley muttered, lowering his voice and putting a hand back to rub at the smart.   

Flynn didn't  budge one inch and Riley, long familiar with the nuances of Flynn's face, saw his eyes crackling. Always the danger signal.

"And there are rules."

There was an interested audience of the entire rest of the family behind Flynn, and aware of their attention, Riley resisted the urge to argue further, instead stalking past Flynn and around Philip to his usual place at the table beside Jasper who quietly slid his chair out for him.  Flynn took his own seat, still looking grim, and people started passing dishes and filling plates as Paul brought the last dishes to the table. Philip folded his paper as though only just becoming aware anyone else was in the kitchen, and looked down the table to Jake.

"Did you see the fences in the home pasture this morning? I was wondering if they'd last another season."

"They're in pretty good shape." Jake said easily, passing a dish of potatoes to Riley with a smile that was as good natured as Jake was and said that he'd never hold scowling against you. "We'll need to replace about a twenty foot section in the north east corner where it's looking worn, but the rest will stand the winter."

"We'll plan that in for tomorrow." Flynn said, taking the dish from Riley as he finished with it. "Corey, you can come up with us, we'll need the extra pair of hands."

The newest member of the family, a very slightly built, fair haired and rather elfin young man in his very early twenties, gave Flynn one of his wide eyed looks that infallibly made Riley want to throw bread rolls at him.

"I had plans to check the river in the morning."

Across the table, Darcy caught Riley's eye and rolled his own brown eyes ceilingwards.

"What did you think needed doing?" Flynn said with what Riley felt was unnecessary patience. Corey gave him what Darcy called one of his Early Sainthood smiles.

"It looked like there might be a tree down over by the wagon crossing."

"So why didn't you go and make sure?" Darcy muttered audibly. Paul, sitting next to him, murmured something and Darcy pulled a face, but went on eating. 

"I could check," Riley said shortly, exasperated, "Since I won't be doing anything else useful tomorrow-"

It worked. That tone always worked on Flynn, whose head jerked straight up like a hound hearing the hunting horn, eyes forbidding.

"Do you want to eat, or look at a corner?"

"I don't mind doing the fences and then doing the tree, if you want me to," Corey offered to Flynn still more sweetly.

"Corey, stop it." Paul said firmly, hooking an ankle around Riley's in a comfortable and comforting way that said please quit baiting Flynn and settle down.

"Eat your dinner. You too Riley. Jas, what are you planning tomorrow?"

Jasper poured himself a glass of water from the jug on the table, filling Riley's glass too while he was at it.

"I thought I saw some bear tracks along the cow pastures." 

"That close?" Paul demanded. Jasper nodded.

"Maybe the calves are looking tempting. I moved the herd out and away from the woods this morning, but I'll do a little tracking tomorrow."

Darcy and Riley glanced at each other, both of them lighting up with hope and Flynn got there first.

"You need any help?"

"I'm not going after it, I just want to know where it's roaming." Jasper said mildly. "No need to interfere with it unless it gets a taste for the stock. May just be a youngster who's curious."

"I could help Jasper too if you like?" Corey offered. The honey almost oozed across the table from his tone. Riley, about to slam down his fork and invite Corey to shut the hell up, was interrupted by Philip's very quiet voice from the end of the table.

"Thank you."

Corey, and pretty much everyone else, froze.

Riley, who had seen Philip break up fights with nothing more than those two softly said words, held on to his fork and kept his eyes on the table. Darcy, opposite him, put his own cutlery down with a clunk, glaring at Corey.

"You are such a suck up. Do you practice it or something? You love it when someone else is in the muck-"

"Darce, stop it." Paul said firmly. Darcy opened his mouth and Jasper looked up, catching his eye. Darcy usually would shut up for Jasper if no one else; he scowled at Jasper but subsided.

"You are going to be short handed," Riley said shortly to Flynn. "You can't cover all the youngsters on your own-"

"I'll manage for two days." Flynn informed him, "And possibly you'll learn to listen to me."

As if I don't?

Riley glared at him, angry and hurt. It was a short and easy step from hurt that Flynn was mad over nothing, to defence by making sure Flynn had something to be good and mad about. He grabbed his plate and got up, and Paul sat back in his chair, putting an arm out to stop him.

"Riley, sit down. We're not all finished."

"May I be excused?" Riley demanded, looking at Flynn. Paul answered, taking his plate away and putting it back on the table.

"No. Sit down."

Riley stood where he was, seriously on the end of losing his temper, looking at Paul who still had an arm around his waist and whose eyes were asking quietly for Riley to please let this go. Paul always understood, and when he looked like that he was damned hard to refuse.

Corey gave Paul a sweet smile, putting out a hand to touch Paul's arm, and Riley saw its intent; anything to pull Paul's attention away.

"Paul, the potatoes are so delicious, may I have some more please?"

Darcy made loud vomiting noises, and Flynn put his fork down, giving him a hard look.

"Okay, enough. If you can't join a civilised mealtime, you can go and get ready for bed. You too Riley. Move."

"Because he's creeping?" Darcy demanded. "He is, you can see he is!"

"I'm very well aware of what is going on here." Flynn told him. "Both of you, now."

Darcy pulled a face but got up and went towards the stairs. Riley didn't move, looking hard at Flynn. Philip laid his fork down, sitting back in his chair.

"Riley, come here."

Riley went to him slowly. Philip took his hand when he came into reach, pulled Riley down into his lap and wrapped an arm around him, speaking very quietly against Riley's ear.

"You don't want to continue this argument, it's only going to end badly for you.  Go upstairs and get some rest. This will look different in the morning."

Riley twisted around to wrap his arms around Philip's neck and felt Philip's arm tighten around him, holding him close. It was easier then to kiss Philip as he did every night, to get up and to go upstairs as if there was no one else sitting at the table to look at. As he reached the foot of the stairs, he heard Philip's voice behind him, still quiet.

"Corey? You can come with me please."

That was some comfort.

At the table, Paul collected the plates and got up.

"Anyone for a quiet cup of tea?"

"Which is so delicious…." Jasper said, which pulled a reluctant grin from Flynn.

"Stop it." Paul told him. "Corey's better than he was, and he doesn't do it to be spiteful, it's a bid for approval and it's all insecurity. Ri and Darcy know better than to rise to it. What kind of threat is he to them? It's pathetic, and they know it is."

"It's irritating on them." Flynn said dryly. "Philip's going to have to find someone with a lot of patience and a lot of time for Corey."

"An older man." Paul said thoughtfully. "Goodness knows Corey needs some spoiling."

"Maybe Riley's rejects?" Jake suggested. "Philip keeps on lining them up and Riley keeps on turning them down."

Which Riley did with kindness and good nature, and Jake thought no little amusement at Flynn's grim surveillance of each new candidate.

"None of which were good enough." Flynn said briefly. "Jas, would you have a word with Darce and Ri? If they can be civil to Corey, they can come downstairs. If I try saying that to Riley right now we're going to end up clocking one another."

"You're going to have to give him a bit more rope with the colts eventually, love." Paul said gently. "He's more than earned it."

"He's as competent with the youngsters as I am," Flynn stooped by the door to pull his boots on. "But he needs to learn to follow the rules."

Paul shook his head. "What are you worried about? Liberace loves him."

"Liberace scares too easily and I don't want Ri out of sight of us if Liberace throws him."

"I've never seen Ri thrown yet." Jake pointed out.

"You know horses. It can and will happen eventually." Flynn said bluntly, heading outside.

Jake shook his head, putting his plate in the sink. Jasper caught Paul's eye and Paul shook his head slightly.

I know. Let it go for now.




*




Philip was usually the earliest riser in the house except for Paul; Riley could hear Paul in the kitchen, humming to himself and the faint clatter of him starting to think about breakfast. Riley turned right at the foot of the stairs instead of going on to the kitchen and instead leaned against the open door of the study, looking at the iron grey haired man seated at the leather topped desk, writing swiftly with one of the crystal ink pots open before him.

He didn't look up, or stop in his work, but one arm extended to Riley, and Riley went to him, letting the arm wrap around his waist and pull him close, and stooping to give the older man a hug for good morning. Philip's shirt was crisp and he had the usual, comforting early morning Philip aroma of aftershave and the faint, expensive cologne.  

"You're up early." Philip commented.

Riley watched the pen move swiftly over the paper. Some letter to someone about expansion – all the words in the sentence made sense, but the sentence itself was incomprehensible, business jargon Riley recognised and just as quickly dismissed from his mind, long used to Philip's multiple threads to far distant corporations and the men that arrived in helicopters on the landing pads.

"Will you talk to Flynn?" he asked instead, quietly. "Please?"

Philip didn't answer, continuing to write. Riley pressed against him, always faintly surprised that for a relatively slightly built man, Philip didn't move an inch under the pressure.

"There's no reason to ground me, he is being unfair. You know how he gets. If I put a foot wrong he's on me. He isn't like that with Darcy or the others, it's only ever me, like I'm still some kid he has to watch all the time."

"He expects the others to obey rules." Philip commented without looking up.

"He's reasonable about their rules."  Riley scowled, watching the pen move. "Will you talk to him? Please?"

Philip didn't answer, continuing to write steadily, and Riley, used to him, went quiet and went on leaning into the firm arm around him. It was a while before Philip capped the pen and laid it down, sitting back in his chair to see Riley's face.

"Are you going to tell me what's the matter?"

"You know what's the matter." Riley said awkwardly. "I only took the horse a couple of miles up a trail and he went nuts like he always does-"

Philip said nothing at all, but his eyes didn't waver. Riley dropped his eyes, unable to stand that penetrating gaze.

"That is all."

Philip didn't answer for a  long time, and Riley reflected again, very uncomfortably, that Philip rarely needed telling anything.

"You need to be talking to Flynn." he said at last, quietly. "Don't you?"

"You know he won't listen," Riley said derisively. "He's stubborner than an ox and three times as bull headed. He'll get mad and we'll fight. I hate fighting with him."

Philip raised an eyebrow. "And you're telling me that in a family this size, you can find no one for advice or help in doing it in a way that won't mean a fight?"

"Paul always goes in on Flynn's side whether he agrees with it or not," Riley said darkly, temper rapidly coming back to the boil as he thought about it, "And Jasper won't listen because he's as defensive of Flynn as Paul is – it's like trying to break into Alcatraz. Those three are just – spot welded, you can't get in between them. It drives me mad!"

"There is Luath. Jacob." Philip pointed out. "Among many others you might choose from. There are people here who will understand."

"It's only Paul and Jas who make any real difference to Flynn, you know it is." Riley stubbed a toe moodily into the carpet. "And you can't get anywhere with either of them unless Flynn's on board, because they always follow his lead-"

"Always?" Philip said mildly. "Riley, it never before occurred to me that you were unable to make anyone listen to you. Not even Flynn."

Riley growled. "Who said anything last night when Flynn was all over me in front of everyone? There isn't anything I do that he takes seriously! None of them take me seriously. I'm just a kid as far as they're concerned. That's all."

"If you do in fact believe that," Philip observed, "Then I would be inclined to suggest that your main problem is that Flynn is quite right, and you have some growing up to do."

That, this morning, was more stinging than it was possible to take quietly. Riley stepped away from Philip, unable to keep the bite out of his voice as he headed for the door.

"So everyone keeps telling me."

Philip's cleared throat was a very soft sound, but it was a distinct one.

Unwillingly, Riley stopped in the doorway, not turning back. Philip said nothing at all. Stomach starting to sink, Riley very slowly turned around and obeyed the crooked finger. Philip's face was still calmly genial, but as Riley reached his desk, he picked up his pen again and without looking at Riley, pointed a finger at the couch. Riley sank down onto the leather and flopped back into its depths.

He had been there perhaps twenty minutes when Paul tapped at the door, carefully taking no notice of the brat on the sofa. It was a familiar sight in this room.

"Philip? Guy Dean from Adosphere is on the phone."

"Thank you." Philip laid down his pen and got up without comment to Riley, following Paul towards the kitchen.

He was gone for some time.

Riley sat on the couch for a while before sheer boredom drove him up and he scuffed across to the bookshelves. The books there were ones that Flynn and Jasper had worked their way through – Jake and Paul and Riley himself preferred the novels that lived on the shelves of the family room, but Flynn was just the type to plough through some heavy tome that would send any normal person to sleep. It was typical of him.

A newspaper was on the desk and Riley turned it over, flicking through a few pages without interest, but underneath it was a worn, red leather book without a label, just with a leather book mark between its pages. Automatically Riley flicked it open, skimming until a word on one page caught his eye, snatching his attention. For a moment he read, captivated, then he turned the page and dropped down into Philip's chair, devouring the neat, slanting handwriting that filled the pages.







The family were gathering for breakfast when Philip finished what had become a lengthy phone conversation with a banker in Manhattan, and returned to the study. There was no sign of Riley in the room. However a folded sheet of paper on the desk had Philip's name written on it, and Philip picked it up, unfolding it to read.

A few minutes later, Paul saw Philip's discreet sign to Jasper from the kitchen doorway, got up from the table and followed Jasper into the family room where Philip offered him the letter.

Jasper read it in silence, and Paul saw his face change as he read it, although it was difficult to say how. He folded it neatly and returned it to Philip.

"I'll go now."

"I was sure you would know what to do." Philip said mildly. "I'll leave this in your hands. Take what you need."

"I will. Don't worry."

Jasper was already moving. Paul watched him go, concerned, and then looked back to Philip.

"So what was that all about?"

"An errand for me." Philip said simply. "No Paul, don't harass me. Jasper is more than capable."

"Of what?" Paul said suspiciously. "Flynn's out of range you know? He went out onto the tops as soon as it was light this morning and he won't be back until late afternoon if we need him-"

"Good." Philip assured him, going to sit down to breakfast.





*





Eagle Canyon.

Riley had never heard it mentioned before, not in three years of living on the ranch. He knew the rocky plateau that overlooked David's abortive attempt at a quartz mine and the old river bed that led to the ruins of what had once been a Shoshone village.
It had been abandoned for over a century; Riley knew the stories from Philip, who had learned them from David, who had been a friend of some of the last Shoshone tribesmen still living on this land in the 1930s, but even then their homes had been further south west. They had treated this silent gathering of broken rock shelters and paths as somewhere hallowed on the banks of the river, a monument to the memory of ancestors long gone. Even in the full sunlight of early afternoon, it was a distinctly eerie place to be, and Bounty, usually a very lively and fidgety gelding who did not appreciate being made to walk anywhere on open ground, ducked his head and walked softly past, huffing occasionally at the grass as he did when he walked past a senior horse. It was his, 'don't hurt me, I'm just passing by' sound, and Riley, who knew what it meant, found himself glancing around a little more nervously than he liked.

The ground here was rocky, disappearing into canyons and narrow passes where the horses took shelter from the summer storms. Riley followed the natural path beyond the village, keeping a sharp eye out as they walked for anything resembling a path, and watching the height of the rock walls starting to go higher and higher over head. It was nearly forty minutes ride beyond the village that he saw the peak, standing high above the others in the distance. A red and yellow promontory, massive and raggedly grand against the electric blue of the sky, and as if in confirmation of the fact, a dark shadow high in the sky above it spread massive wings with the black tips like fingers, and turned on the wind, circling slowly.

It took almost another hour to find the trail that led up. From the bottom of the canyon, the peak was no longer visible and the cliff face too sheer to be climbable. This was the land where Bounty had foaled and where he with his mother and the rest of the herd had come in the rains and storms, and Riley took the precaution of removing his tack before he turned him loose. There was no shortage of grass to graze on and Bounty would not have to go far to find one of the many streams; he would be far safer wandering free and able to run than tied and at the mercy of any predators. Leaving the tack and saddle bags close against the bottom of the cliff, Riley stuffed his pockets with the jerky and apples he'd taken from the stable this morning, took a healthy bite of jerky for the journey upwards, and started the walk up the rocky, dusty trail. If this was their test of manhood, then so be it.



Within minutes, it ceased to become a trail and became a climb. Riley, fit and three years accustomed to the rough land of the ranch, and having climbed many times with Jake both with and without ropes on various rock faces on the ranch, found it hard work. Within twenty minutes the trail became a narrow, winding path through rocks that meant turning sideways and squeezing through the gullies that led upward. This had been the path of a waterfall once. Riley, having been taught by Jasper who saw and understood such things, recognised the signs. He was moving now up the path that water had once cut through the rock, the same route that Flynn and Jasper had once climbed, and if they could do it, it could be done. Riley wedged himself against a rock to pull the water flask from his pocket and take a long drink, wiping sweat from his eyes. By his estimate he had been climbing about forty five minutes. The view down into the canyon showed a steep drop – he was unsure of how many feet – but there was no sight yet of the top.

It was another half hour, and a slow half hour of careful climbing and carefully placed toe holds and hand holds and edging around the massive rocks and through the narrow gaps before the trail finally petered out and left Riley facing a sheer cliff of perhaps twenty feet rearing above him. He surveyed the cliff face for some time with dismay, sure that there had to be some means of climbing it. The rock looked like glass, horribly smooth and quite vertical.

Flynn and Jasper had both somehow climbed this. It was infuriating that they had never troubled to mention how.

Riley stepped forward and ran his hands up the rock face as far as he could reach. It was not quite as smooth as it looked. And when sought there were marks in the stone – marks where other feet had found notches in the sandstone and gripped. And where riding boots would be no help at all. Annoyed with himself for not thinking of bringing trainers, Riley took off his boots and his shirt, and made an impromptu rucksack. After a moment's thought he removed his socks as well. Grazed he may well end up, but he was more likely to sense and grip footholds without them. Tying the whole securely on his back, he once more reached out to the surface of the cliff and with great care, took the first step up.

It was very slow going. Every foothold had to be felt for and tested, every new hand hold sought with care, and Riley clung to the cliff face, carefully keeping his centre of gravity close to the wall and keeping his mind on nothing except up. Foot by foot. Hand by hand. Body hugging the sandstone, he crawled, breathing its dust. Only once did a hand hold give way, the rock crumbling, his fingers slipping, and the jolt nearly threw him down into the canyon. The other secure hand hold saved him. Clinging to the rock like a monkey, Riley shut his eyes and waited for his heart to stop thundering, willing the rock to hold him. His fingers felt wet with sweat. It took a few moments before he began slowly to climb again, thinking about nothing but getting up. Getting up. Reaching the top. And finally his hand closed on grass over the top of a ledge, he fought his way up and over the edge, and rolled onto a flat plateau where he lay on his back under the cobalt sky, gasping for breath.

It was some time before he had enough breath and the will to sit up and look around him. His shoulders felt burned from the effort, his legs ached and his bare feet stung, and his hands were as bloodied as his toes. But the view – the view outweighed every graze and scratch and ache. Riley stood up and his breath was stolen for a very different reason. It was like looking out from the edge of the world.

The plateau was quite a large one – sloping gently backwards, towards a few small thickets of trees and rough grass. And in every direction stood the mountains, the green plains and the peaks of red rock, silent and undisturbed and preternatural in its majesty. This was a place where the air hardly moved. Well back from the edge, near the trees, stood several small cairns of stones, carefully stacked and gathered, and on other rocks, the large rock surfaces were stained, marked and carved with odd shapes and patterns with a few pictures. Riley put a hand reverently on one of the rocks to look closer and when he moved his hand away, realised he'd left a smear of his own blood marked on the rock – a slightly more vivid smear than several others he could see, long aged and weathered. It was a strange, strange place. And yet it was not at all alarming, nor a place Riley felt an urge to escape from. Unable to tear his eyes from the view, he sat down on the rough, rocky grass, put his back against one of the rock walls, and looked out over the world laid below him.







He didn't hear the sound of anyone approaching. The isolation and the silence made it all the more shocking when a shadow fell over him a little over an hour later, and he looked up to find Jasper. A demand to know how Jasper reached the top without climbing died on Riley's lips. Never, in three years, had he seen Jasper's usually calm eyes look like this. They didn't crackle like Flynn's did when he was angry – Jasper's dark, almost black eyes were burning. 'Mad' didn't begin to cover it, and Riley knew it, a kind of sick horror starting to take him over. This wasn't just mad.

Jasper didn't say a word, but Riley scrambled to his feet and Jasper took his arm, leading him swiftly down the slope towards the trees. The grip on his arm wasn't painful, but the silence was terrifying. Riley, stomach churning with alarm, walked quickly to keep pace with him, trying not to stumble barefoot on the rough grass. The small thicket of trees led to a steep slope downward, and Riley recognised the original path of the waterfall once more. He scrambled down it ahead of Jasper, Jasper followed a lot more quietly and with more grace, and led him through another narrow gully in the rock to a lower plateau, looking east instead of south west, more sheltered and with marks Riley recognised of a deep fireplace cut against the stone, surrounded with a neat ring of rocks and traces of ash so old it was almost unidentifiable.

There, Jasper turned Riley to face him, putting both hands on his shoulders and giving him a look that made Riley's eyes sting that Jasper should ever look at him like that. This had nothing to do with notes and rules and the kind of things Flynn growled about and that Jasper was mildly and immovably firm about.

"What?" Riley said with all his heart. "Jas, please?"

He knew Jasper understood what he meant. He saw too the breath Jasper took to calm himself before he spoke, and heard the deepness of his voice that sounded stiffly controlled.

"This is a sacred place. Do you know what that means?"

"It was a rite of passage thing you and Flynn did years ago," Riley said cautiously, not at all sure it was a helpful thing to say, "I can see people have been here before-"

"Sacred." Jasper said again, so softly and with such intensity Riley flinched. "And you storm into it, as selfishly as an angry child, for no better reason than to pay out someone you love for crossing you?" 

"No." Riley said at once and strongly, understanding. "Jas I didn't, I swear to you I didn't."

Jasper looked at him, saying nothing, forgiving nothing, but waiting. Riley took a breath, aware he was shaking a little with tired muscles and sheer distress at how upset Jasper was.

"If this was a test, then I took it. I climbed, and not with a head full of meanness at Flynn, I didn't come here to pay him back! I came here to do what you did, to climb. To earn the right to be taken seriously by the same measure you two did."

Jasper didn't answer and Riley grabbed his arm, hanging on to him, almost afraid he would walk away.

"All right, tell me. What is this place? What don't I understand?"

"To come up here," Jasper said slowly, "To spend the night on the peak, was a ritual of manhood. A sacred ritual. Men would purify themselves, body and mind, to prepare themselves. Not to prove themselves, not for selfish or petty reasons. For hundreds of years man after man came up here-" he trailed off, and Riley realised it was something almost too private for Jasper to speak of.

For years, Jasper had shared with him the stories he had learned as a child from his grandfather, the values he had been taught as a child in the Blue Ridge Mountains; something they talked about when they were out working alone together on the ranch, or at night if Jasper sat with him in his room when he came to say goodnight, as something private between the two of them. Something he knew Jasper didn't talk about to everyone.

"I came here for the wrong reasons maybe," he said sincerely to Jasper, still hanging on to him. "I don't know about preparation, but you taught me more respect for the land than to take a test like this muttering and swearing. I climbed, and that was all. I did nothing disrespectful, nothing to defile it, nothing to harm it, I didn't say a word up there or leave a mark-"

He stopped, thinking of the rock, then winced and with an effort showed Jasper his hand.

"No, I did, I'm sorry. I touched a rock and left some blood on it."

Jasper looked up at him quickly, then took his hand, looking at the scraped palm.

"Yours won't be the only blood sacrifice made up there." he said after a minute, a lot more quietly. "What path did you take?"

"The path runs out." Riley said frankly. "Although I guess you came up another way? I climbed the last twenty feet up the face?"

This time he saw Jasper's brows raise.

"You say," Riley said swiftly before Jasper could say anything else, "An act done in clear intent, with faith, is powerful."

"How did you know of this place?" Jasper asked without heat.

Riley felt his face start to flush. It was another of Jasper's values, one of the things that really mattered to him, and Riley already knew exactly what he would think of it. It took a lot of courage to admit.

"….I saw it in Philip's journal. He left it on the desk and I opened it, I didn't know what it was – and then I saw Flynn's name and read a few pages, and he talked about you and Flynn coming up here-"

He trailed off, almost afraid to look at Jasper's face.

"I'm sorry. Truly. It invaded Philip's privacy and yours, and Flynn's. That's an awful thing to do."

"It is." Jasper agreed quietly.

"I'm sorry." Riley said from the heart, blinking to stop his eyes stinging. "I've got no right to ask you to forgive me when I knew it was wrong and I did it anyway – but I promise you I won't do that again?"

Jasper put a hand behind his head and Riley shut his eyes as Jasper kissed his cheek, his breath against Riley's ear.

"The only thing a man need be ashamed of……?"

"Is failing to learn." Riley finished the quotation unsteadily, wrapping his arms tightly around Jasper's waist.

"And I plan on giving you another very good reason to remember." Jasper said candidly, giving him a crushing hug before he let go. "That what ever you may be struggling with, there is no excuse. We don't do these things to people we love."

There was something in his tone and face that made Riley stare at him, wondering for one awful minute just what Jasper knew.

Jasper looked back for a minute, dark eyes calm, then nodded at the thicket of trees beyond the plateau. "Find a tree and pick a switch. About this long," he indicated with his hands, "pick a couple if you're not sure."

Riley automatically caught the pocket knife Jasper threw him, mouth still open. Jasper unslung a bag  from over his shoulder and crouched on the turf, starting to unpack it. Never in the three years he had lived on this ranch had Riley encountered anything but the palm of someone's hand or the flat of the small wooden paddle that lived in the bottom drawer of Philip's desk.

"A switch?" he said eventually, horrified.

Jasper nodded calmly, still unpacking the bag. "Those cottonwoods over there."

He was actually serious. His respect for this place increasing exponentially by the second, Riley walked very slowly towards the trees. He had not the faintest idea what a switch should look like – apart from very obviously the need to stand up to the job it was about to be put to. Being asked to actually identify and pick the instrument himself was –

-       unpleasant to put it mildly. It felt far too co operative, if not actually helpful. It
was quite impossible to look at a single twig without having to imagine how it might feel. It was still harder to rationally look for one that Jasper might accept as sufficiently sturdy. It was obvious that to take back something light was to show that he had very little respect for how awful a thing this was to have done. Mouth very dry, stomach churning, Riley finally grabbed for a likely branch, opened the knife and cut it, and walked slowly back to where Jasper was laying a fire in the ready made fireplace against the rock. He looked up at Riley's approach and held out a hand. Riley offered him the branch, and Jasper shook his head with nothing more than a brief glance.

"No. Too thick. Try again."

Mouth drier still, Riley swallowed on the urge to protest or plead for mercy, and instead walked still more slowly back to the tree. A switch, reasonably, would have to be relatively straight  - and flexible – and relatively firm, although that was a property Riley didn't want to think too hard about. On the edge of the cottonwoods was a young tree with several long, low and slender branches, and Riley uncertainly put a hand out to pull on one, feeling the spring in the wood. He cut one of the smaller, slender shoots, a maybe three foot long length, and with his knees starting to shake slightly, walked back to Jasper. Jasper took this one out of his hand, flicked it to get the flexibility, then took the knife from Riley and cut off about a foot from the thicker end, dropping it in the fireplace. Rapidly and without effort he stood and skinned the switch, peeling bark and knots from the wood with the same skill Riley had seen him whittle the little carved animals and items he made whenever he had nothing better to do with his hands. There was a kind of awful fascination to watching, even though he did it so quickly. When he was done, he gathered up the dropped bark and shavings in one hand and dropped them in the fire too, then held out a hand to Riley. Riley took it numbly, walking with him towards one of the stacks of rocks and boulders tumbled against the steep rock faces. Jasper picked a larger stack and took a seat, drawing Riley to stand beside him. There wasn't really much doubt about what to do next.

Riley eased the buttons of his jeans free, looking at the grass rather than Jasper, and summoned up the nerve to push his jeans downward, and slide his shorts after them. Somehow being outside made him feel still more vulnerable than usual, acutely aware of the warmth of the sun against bare skin and the brief stir of the breeze. Jasper put a hand on the small of his back to bend Riley over his lap and Riley automatically stretched himself over Jasper's denimed knees, putting his sore hands down to the grass and trying his best to brace bare toes against the ground behind him. He felt Jasper push his jeans further down out of the way, and then the warmth of his palm slid the tail of his t shirt up above the small of his back and rested there flat, which made him want to squirm in a last ditch panic. He felt the switch touch lightly across both cheeks, and involuntarily jerked and clenched away from it, and then jumped, mouth dropping open at the sheer sting that lit up across his behind. There was no sound, barely any sense of impact – just lines of searing sting that came again and again in flashes of fire up and down his rump. Faster than a paddling or a spanking and far lighter, but the sheer intensity was appalling. It was at the third or fourth that Riley found himself throwing his hand back to defend himself, unable not to, and Jasper's hand simply took his and held it at his waist, using his forearm across Riley's back to hold him steady while he worked.

Riley had already been deeply upset and penitent before this started, and with the emotions near the surface, self control was out of the question. He'd heard the other brats talk for years, quietly among themselves on what they thought about during a spanking – his impression was that the Tops weren't particularly concerned about this, and felt quite competent to ensure the full attention of anyone they disciplined – but it mattered among the brats, and he'd heard some of them talk about holding their breath, counting to themselves, Roger who would do his best to keep at least one foot against the floor to maintain some sense of control in his own head, and the courage it took to be a partner in the matter, to not try to distract oneself in an attempt to minimise the pain, in the same way they tried to physically co operate.

It was a moot point for Riley who lost all contact with coherent thought at the point of being turned over someone's lap. It didn't particularly matter whose either; Flynn, Paul or Jasper. They were people he loved and hated disappointing and the physical pain of a spanking in addition drew tears all too easily. He had no idea of anything at all but the fire that switch painted all over his butt and of sobbing wildly; it could have been six strokes or sixty, he had no idea when it dawned on him that no new stripes were falling and that his backside radiated an acutely stinging fire of the stripes already laid across it. Only then did he take a few deeper breaths and get himself somewhat under control, and a moment or two later Jasper helped him stagger up to his feet and rearrange badly disordered clothing, and Riley found himself stood facing the uneven stone of the cliff wall, alternately rubbing at his tearstained face and his blazing backside, gulping and hitching on the last of his sobs.

It took him some time to cry himself out, and with only Jasper as a very safe audience, Riley didn't try too hard to stop, letting go of frustrations he had been only barely aware of. He was a good deal calmer and reaching the limply tired point when Jasper quietly said his name from across the grass. Riley turned to look and when Jasper held out a hand to him from where he sat cross legged by a now crackling fire, he crossed the grass and buried himself in Jasper's waiting arms. It was very late afternoon by the sun starting to turn pink and orange across the sky, and this felt the safest place in the world to be.

"Too late to go anywhere tonight." Jasper said quietly, holding him. "We'll sleep here and start back in the morning."

"And I bet you've got nothing whatever that's useful with you." Paul's voice calmly commented from the path.

Riley jerked upright and as Paul, sweating heavily, out of breath and dusty, came up onto the plateau, Riley scrambled to his feet and ran to him. Paul hugged him very tightly, holding on to Riley for support for a minute while he caught his breath.

"How did you know where to come?" Jasper asked, coming to take the small rucksack Paul carried.

"Flynn." Paul nodded back at the path. "He's bringing the other bag up- Riley you're barefoot, don't you dare climb down there."

Riley, taking very little notice, crashed into Flynn at the top of the steep path down, and Flynn dropped the bag on the grass to lift him off his feet in a bear hug that threatened to break ribs. Hung around his neck, Riley wouldn't have known or cared. The apologies blurted into Flynn's ear were already being stifled by Flynn's voice, gruff and quiet against his own ear, the deep and beloved New Zealand accent.

"I am going to bloody kill you this time half-pint, it's no good telling me 'sorry'. I only came up here for the pleasure of dropping you off the cliff myself, what do you think I made of a note and you vanishing?"

"I stole the note from Philip." Paul said quite shamelessly to Jasper, joining him by the fire and starting to unpack the bag Flynn had brought. "And since we also left a note and vanished, Flynn, you'd probably better be careful what you say."

"Philip couldn't do the climb up here." Flynn said, putting Riley down. "At least I hope he can't."

"Well I don't think I could have done it without you helping." Paul rolled his eyes at Riley and pulled several boxes out of the bag, amongst blankets, firelighters, thermoses and water bottles.

"Chicken, that's a bag of rolls, that's cheese, that's salad, Jas you look starved. Riley come here and let me see those hands."

Sitting was really not an option. Flynn, taking a look at Riley's tearstained face and reading Jasper's face in turn, took a seat on the grass and pulled Riley down into his lap, and Riley gratefully extended his hands to Paul who had opened a packet of antiseptic wipes.

"You did this on the climb up?"

"I wouldn't go into detail." Jasper advised Riley. Riley shook his head, tired and in no mood for obfustication.

"I climbed up the sheer bit. I had to do it barefoot, the boots were no good."

There was a shocked silence, then Paul dropped his hands and stared, and Flynn gave Riley a shake that was as rough and as exasperated as his growl.

"You are insane! If you'd fallen, God only knows what would have happened-"

"I did a good job." Jasper interrupted quietly. Flynn looked at him, unamused.

"I bet you didn't cover that part."

"No." Jasper agreed. "The route up is a personal choice, that isn't for me to say yes or no to."

"Well it is for me." Flynn said flatly. "If you ever do anything so deliberately, stupidly dangerous again Riley Hamilton, I'll-"

"I won't." Riley twisted around to get his arms around Flynn's neck, understanding the tone. "I'm sorry. I won't. I really won't."

"And when he's finished with you, you'll have me to deal with." Paul said darkly, re capturing one of Riley's hands to go on cleaning the grazes. "Are you going to tell us what this is about? I saw the note."

"I did something awful." Riley leaned against Flynn, admitting it with shame but without reservation under Jasper's merciful eye. "I read Philip's journal this morning. He wrote about you and Jasper coming up here to put David's charm in the cairn. He said it was a quest, a Shoshone manhood rite and David had done it with Shoshone friends – I'm sorry, I didn't mean to pry, I just didn't think until it was too late."

It was always Flynn who was the easiest to apologise to. Riley thought about that briefly, remembering the fight of only last night as Flynn said quietly and with a lot of the patience that Riley loved,

"What did you want to prove, half pint? Was this because of your birthday? Or to prove to me you're old enough to handle colts without me standing over you?"

"Neither." Riley put his free hand back over his shoulder to find Flynn's face. "Really, neither."

"I know you're competent with the colts." Flynn kissed Riley's palm, leaning his chin against it for a moment. "I know you're careful, I know you're at no more risk with them than I am, but I can't be rational about it and you're going to have to accept that. I'm sorry,  but you are. The thought of you getting hurt-"

He broke off and Riley felt his reaction, almost a physical shudder that went with the crushing tightness of his arms.

"It kills me to think about it. It's got nothing to do with whether you're competent or not. I make the rules about the horses and that's one I'm not shifting on, now or ever."

It was impossible to hear that tone in his voice without your heart singing. Riley shook his head, smiling despite a face still stiff with salt, the sting of antiseptic on his palm and the still blazing soreness of his backside.

"I don't mind. I really don't mind."

"Then what was this about?" Paul asked, looking shrewdly at him.

"Making sure you had to take me seriously."

All three of them turned to him, and Riley saw their concern.

Don't we take you seriously?

No you don't. Not yet.

"How seriously do you want us to take you?" Flynn demanded.

Riley didn't answer, and after a moment he got a rather more piercing look from Paul. The light around the trees was getting redder and Jasper leaned over, gently taking Riley's hand away from Paul's ministrations.

"You made the climb. You're entitled to see the sunset from the top."

Riley hesitated, almost afraid to ask, then got up. "Is there anything I need to do? Tell me."

"Just be open." Jasper said mildly.

Riley knew him well enough to understand what that meant. He hesitated, looking from Jasper to Flynn to Paul.

"Are you coming too?"

There were probably rules about doing this alone, but Riley had no desire to, and after a moment Jasper pushed quietly to his feet and Flynn got up, offering a hand to Paul to help him off the grass.

It was a slow and easy climb back up to the top plateau, and as they came out of the thicket of trees, Riley heard Paul's breath catch at the view. The sunset filled the sky with unearthly colours, from horizon to horizon. Riley walked slowly, looking at the new blood stain on the rock, left with other stains, decades old, to mark others who had stood here on days like these.

An act done in clear intent, with faith, is powerful….

High above them an eagle wheeled, turning on a down draft. Riley heard, rather than saw Jasper kneel on the rocky grass, murmuring something almost too soft to be heard, and which Riley knew he wouldn't understand anyway.

"Which one is David's?" Paul's voice said very quietly. Flynn took his hand, walking with him to the furthest of the cairns, and Paul crouched there, brushing a very gentle hand over the top stone. Riley stooped behind him to wrap his arms around Paul's neck, looking with him over Paul's shoulder. Paul put a hand up to brush his cheek, a wordless reply to Riley's comfort, and Riley kissed his cheek in return before he let go, aware that Paul's eyes were wet. As he walked on towards the edge of the peak, he saw a feather shine on the ground and stooped, absently picking it up and running its shaded black and white softness over his fingers.

On the very edge of the plateau with the safety of the three of them behind him, Jasper, Paul and Flynn, Riley looked out over the land below and without being quite sure why, spread his arms like an eagle drifting out on the wind.


 ~*~      ~*~      ~*~ 

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

3 comments:

Monu said...

this was juz stupendous! I feel like crying after reading this...How protective they are all of Ri! How much they love each other.. Being a brat, i m so jealous of him, having three tops to take care of him! If only the ranch was real, i would have packed up and gone there by now...! :D

Ranger said...

They'd make you welcome too! Thank you, it's great to hear you enjoyed it! :)

Nancy Cozier said...

Wow.