Paul dismounted, tied up the reins of the large, gentle cob he had been riding, and dug into the saddle bags, coming up with an armful of parcels which he took directly into the barn.
He had been seen; he saw the figure on the hillside get up, but by the time he reached the barn, Paul had already been in and out and was now sitting peacefully on the grass outside the barn door, admiring the view and enjoying the late fall sunshine.
"Good morning." he said cheerfully, not getting up.
Jasper, in his shirtsleeves over the working jeans and elderly boots he wore every day, nodded and crouched on the grass some way from him, looking with him out over the grassed slopes.
"They look good." Paul said conversationally, looking over the head of two hundred sheep. "Much better since you moved them up here. Are you staying warm enough at night?"
No answer. There often wasn't, and Paul didn't wait for one.
"We took the horses back up onto the tops for the winter yesterday. That always says to me it really is fall. The foals were all strong enough to go out and they're a good size. I lit a fire in the family room last night for the first time since spring. There's quite a bite in the air once the sun's gone."
Silence. Jasper's dark eyes were on the sheep below. Paul pushed to his feet, brushing grass off his jeans.
"Light your fire for me? I'm desperate for a cup of tea, I've been on the go since daybreak."
He went to the cob's saddlebags without looking back but he heard Jasper move and then a few moments later the clatter of the flints he used over the small, stone ringed fire cut in the turf in the shelter of the barn. Paul brought a satchel with him back to the fire, which was blazing efficiently. The water bottle filled the billy can which Paul hung on the hooked stick over the fire and without paying attention to Jasper, he took out a small skillet and put it over the flames, dropping a small amount of fat into the pan.
"We're expecting someone down at the house this afternoon," he said, shaking the fat to melt it faster. "Some college lecturer friend of Philip's has been in touch about a student of his who just started this term. The poor boy only emigrated to the US in August, he's flat broke and he's got nowhere he can afford to go for the mid term break, but he's from a sheep ranching family so the lecturer thought of Philip. Philip's promised us as somewhere safe he can earn his keep, although he's a psychology major so I'm guessing he's going to need a fair amount of time to study."
He unwrapped bacon and several oat cakes from the satchel and dropped them into the now smoking fat, taking out a wooden spatula to turn them. Another parcel opened to reveal rolls still with the last of their warmth from the oven down at the ranch house an hour ago, and Paul split and buttered several, putting them on the two plates he took from the bag.
"I see you've got a good few of the sheep penned up – still foot rot? I saw a lot were lame as I came up."
There was still no answer, but Paul, glancing over at the few hurdled pens where several sheep stood in the shade of the barn, could see there were several sick again. The sheep flock was still very new to the ranch, only six weeks here, and without Jasper to sit up here and monitor them, they would have lost many more than the eighteen so far. Sheep were a rare and unfamiliar stock around here, a mystery to ranchers used to raising cattle, although the increasing money in sheep had led Philip to try the experiment. This lot appeared to Paul to be a wretched crew. Despite Jasper's patient work they sickened and limped and choked and looked on the point of death much of the time. It was no wonder to Paul that sheep were now worth far more than cattle; a healthy sheep raised alive to full growth was probably priceless purely because of its rarity.
He turned the oat cakes once more, fished them out onto the plates and added bacon, then a heavy squeeze of syrup over the oatcakes before he handed the plate to Jasper. Jasper accepted it and Paul picked up his own, adding tea to the billy can to brew. Anything sweet invariably tempted Jasper into eating; something Paul had discovered early on in his patient forays up here. Jasper seemed never to have encountered much sugar in his life, despite that he must have been eighteen or nineteen years old by Paul's estimation, and while he said very little, Paul found him as unable to resist cookies or candy as a bear or a child.
He hunted: Paul had seen the skins by the barn, expertly scraped and dried and bearing witness that he caught and ate meat as he caught and ate fish from the river, but with fall moving on and for a man- or more accurately to Paul's mind, a boy - who spent day and night outside in hard physical work, that was not enough to keep sufficient bulk on an already rangy frame. Paul had begun some time ago leaving bread and flasks of soup when he came up here, and once he had discovered Jasper's weakness, had consistently added the packets of cookies or cake that were always gone when he collected the empty saddle bags. Jasper was eating the bacon and the oatcakes now, at least one hearty and decently hot meal that Paul had the satisfaction of knowing he had eaten today. When he first began to come up here, Jasper was often nowhere to be seen, although Paul suspected strongly that Jasper had been well aware he was there. It had taken several weeks of consistent visits before Jasper began to stay within sight, to move closer and now to actively sit with him, and while he rarely answered, Paul thought Jasper showed every sign of actively listening to what he said. It was the one way he had to keep Jasper connected to the house an hour's ride away; that at least Jasper received regular news of what went on down there, and knew the people by name through Paul's gentle and one sided gossiping.
Philip came up here sometimes to visit his wild boy; the feral and isolated shepherd who garnered a lot of gossip on the neighbouring ranches as well as down in the house from the members of the family who had only ever seen him from a distance. He was rumour to have Native American blood, and Paul thought that was so obvious as to be beyond doubt. From the darkness of his eyes and the strong bones of his face, to the dark, smooth hair tied at the nape of his neck that hung to his shoulders, to the way he moved like a mountain cat, his heritage was written strongly on his frame. Paul often wondered whether Philip got any more conversation from Jasper than he did – or indeed what they had ever found to talk about when Philip first hired this lanky, silent boy in Texas to help him bring a shipment of cattle back to the ranch. Whether they talked or not, Jasper seemed quite committed to staying here and taking care of the sheep and in Paul's experience Philip had a way of inspiring fierce personal commitment from the unlikeliest of people.
He held out a hand for Jasper's plate as he finished eating, offering a tin mug of the tea to replace it, and Jasper accepted the mug from him with a brief but very sweet smile that always made Paul's stomach jump with pleasure and with shock at the strength of it. It was as if Jasper kept his head down and avoided communication to protect people from being burned with those eyes and that smile. There was most definitely someone in there, choosing quite purposefully to keep the world at a distance, which perhaps explained why a boy this remarkable was in the world alone and single. Under the raggedness of his clothing and bony frame that spoke to Paul of several years of systematic underfeeding, he was, if not conventionally handsome, very striking. Deep set, dark eyes and an angular face as well as the golden coffee tone of his skin. Long limbs and long fingers. The accent when he spoke was soft Virginian, and he was surprisingly literate; Paul had glimpsed a couple of very battered and much read paperbacks in the barn by the single bedroll, although Jasper was as private about his possessions as he was closed mouthed. Paul had taken to leaving a book or two with the food he put out of sight in the barn, and on one occasion had come up here to see one of those books by the fire, the place carefully marked with a blade of grass.
All in all, this wild child of Philip's was an ongoing mystery.
"So what found its way up to the barn this morning?" Philip enquired, leading the colt he had been working to the tethering ring on the barn. Paul straightened up, brushing off his hands from the herbs he had been re potting for the porch.
"Just the usual."
"Pillows, blankets, quilts, buckets… you know, it's quite amazing what keeps appearing there?" Philip patted the colt and came to lean on the porch rail, watching Paul lift out another rosemary plant from the several he had been growing in a tub.
"I was sure I saw kindling the other day."
"It's cold at night." Paul crouched over the new pot, shaking aside the earth to push the rosemary roots down deep. "I took one of the stable jackets too. He needs something waterproof or I'm going to be heading up there with antibiotics when he catches pneumonia."
Philip smiled, propping his weight on his hands. "Do you actually get a conversation yet?"
Paul gave him a look that said he wasn't joking, swept up dropped earth and put the pot back in the line of herbs by the back door. "At least he stays and keeps me company when I go up there now. He can't possibly stay up there all winter, Philip. You're going to have to make him come down when the weather turns."
"I doubt I can make him do anything." Philip said dryly. "The boy's half feral."
"He's completely feral." Paul corrected. "He's worse than David. Although much quieter."
Philip laughed, and straightened up, glancing towards the path that led the mile and a half out to the main gate of the ranch and the road.
"Aha. Now this will be our student."
"He's walked?" Paul demanded, getting up. The track that led to the house was almost two miles from the road. A young man under a heavy back pack, was coming up the grass drive, arms bare and darkly tanned below a dark shirt and dusty jeans, and very well broken in hiking boots. Paul thought he looked rather as though he had escaped from an outward bound programme.
"He insisted on taking the bus from Cheyenne." Philip pointed out. "Apparently Mr O'Sullivan likes to be independent at all times."
Well he was certainly going to catch Gerry and Roger's attention, although Paul seriously doubted that even Gerry would be able to call this boy 'pretty'. Wide shouldered, leggy like a colt with joints that seemed too big for a muscular frame, Paul's first impression was of shaggy, sandy coloured hair on a tall boy with long, restless legs and a darkly tanned, grim face with a square and very stubborn jaw. Philip gave him a friendly smile, offering a hand as the young man reached the yard.
"Flynn O'Sullivan, I presume? I'm Philip. Welcome to the ranch."
The boy shook hands without smiling and gave Paul a brief, curt look as though Paul was in his way. Paul offered a hand too, resisting the urge to wince at the terse and extremely firm grasp the boy gave it. There was a lot of power in those fingers.
"I'm Paul. I'm what passes for a housekeeper and you look in urgent need of housekeeping. Come inside and have a drink, you must be parched. Did you have to walk far from the bus?"
Flynn O'Sullivan appeared to be outraged by this invitation. Paul stopped on the steps, aware that he wasn't moving, or trying to release the extremely heavy backpack, and that the angled face had gone from grim to actively belligerent.
"I'm not bloody stopping." he said curtly, and Paul was startled at the broad New Zealand accent. "And I'll see to myself. I'm just here to bloody work."
"Which you're quite welcome to do as much as you like." Philip said mildly. "Shall we go inside and discuss it?"
"I don't do conversation and I don't do bloody socialising," Flynn informed him, shrugging his back pack higher to wrench it off his shoulders and dumping it at his feet. "I'll sleep in the bloody barn or I'll pitch a tent, and I'll just *%$&(%* get on with whatever needs doing, so let's not bother with being bloody 'nice'."
So now it became apparent why Philip wanted this boy here. And he did; Paul knew him too well. This wasn't the casual, generous gesture it looked like. There was that almost affectionate, electric smile at the back of Philip's eyes, a look he saved for men who, in different ways, were raving nightmares. The worse they were, the more Philip loved them.
Hello project #449.
Philip gestured politely towards the house.
"Oh I'm sure I can avoid being nice in any way, shape or form if I try. Do come inside."
"I'm not bloody going inside or anywhere else," Flynn warned. Paul regained his breath and swiped the backpack straight out of Flynn's hand.
"Around here we talk, we eat and we drink inside. Do you talk to your mother with that mouth?"
He didn't stop to see what Flynn's response was, he simply carried the back pack into the kitchen with him and dumped it on the table, going to fill the kettle.
"Take your boots off, I don't spend my entire life keeping this floor clean." He ordered over his shoulder.
Flynn had stopped dead in the doorway and the shock on his face was visible even through the carved granite expression. He was so stunned his jaw had practically dropped. Paul glanced instinctively to see where his eyes had stuck. Luath, Roger and Gerry were gathered around the table as it was approaching lunchtime, and Roger was perched on Luath's lap as they were sharing a glass of orange juice between them. He had put the glass down and leaned over with a hand out, friendly as Roger always was, giving the newcomer a warm smile without troubling to get up.
"Hi, I'll guess you're Flynn?"
Flynn hadn't moved and was still staring at him blankly. Philip put his hands on Flynn's shoulders and gently propelled him forward, and almost in suspended animation Flynn stumbled the few steps and put his hand into Roger's, and then Luath's and Gerry's, speechless, and Paul saw the reason for the rather gentle look on Philip's face. With the granite look knocked out of him, this spitfire was just a boy, perhaps nineteen years old, out of his depth.
"Luath, would you show Flynn his room please?" Philip requested quietly. Luath slid Roger from his lap and got up, and Paul saw Flynn's eyes travel upwards with Luath who was taller and a good fifteen years older than him, and who picked up the backpack without effort.
"Sure. This way, Flynn."
Flynn followed him without a word, moving awkwardly as though afraid of knocking something over and breaking it, and Gerry rolled his eyes at Paul, grinning.
"Well. I get first dibs on those legs. Which way does he swing, do we know?"
"Shh." Paul said very firmly, aware Flynn was quite likely still in earshot. Philip sat down at the head of the table and pulled Gerry down into his lap, putting a hand over his mouth.
"We don't know if he swings at all, so mind your manners."
"I'll convert him." Gerry offered, wriggling free of Philip's hand and giving him a hug. "Can I go up to Jackson this afternoon? Please? I'll be back by dinner and Roger will come too-"
"Roger won't because Roger looks horrified." Paul said, opening the pantry and starting to organise lunch. "Roger, you don't have to go anywhere you don't want to."
"Yes you do." Gerry said unabashed. "Can we?"
"No." Philip said calmly, not letting him go.
"Please?" Gerry coaxed. "Go on, I haven't been anywhere civilised in a week-"
"I happen to know you're broke," Paul pointed out, "Because you still owe me ten dollars from your last trip, and Luath paid your last parking ticket."
"He didn't mind!" Gerry protested. "Just an hour and I won't go into the saloons this time, I promise-"
He was looking at Philip who was still holding him on his lap and not troubling to answer any of this, and he slumped against Philip's shoulder and scowled.
"I never get to go anywhere fun, I was working all morning for Luath with wire and it's shredded my hands."
"Let me see." Paul put bread and the bread knife down, and came to turn Gerry's hands over, inspecting the rather soft palms. "Not one mark, you'll live. Roger, set the table for me please?"
Roger got up and Philip took one of Gerry's hands between both of his, rubbing the palm gently. Luath and Flynn appeared and it was apparent to Paul that Flynn had paused on the way to wash. Which he had done with more efficiency than gentleness; his hair was wet and ruthlessly shoved back, his hands and face were scrubbed. Roger put a heap of plates down on the table and paused in front of Luath to aim both index fingers and poke Luath's chest as though pushing buttons.
"Your nipples show through that shirt."
If Flynn's eyes got any wider he'd probably have a stroke.
"Get off." Luath said calmly, fending Roger off and sitting down. "Flynn, sit down. You must be starved, that's quite a hike from the road."
"Bloody used to it." Flynn said shortly, taking a seat. Luath leaned on the table, distributing plates.
"You're from a ranch in New Zealand?"
Flynn's expression went from bleak to downright arctic and Paul saw Gerry look positively alarmed.
"Too bloody right." Flynn said even more shortly.
"Flynn grew up on a sheep ranch." Philip commented serenely, still holding Gerry. "He is, I hope, going to give me advice on improving our sheep herd."
"Shooting the lot of them would be a good start." Luath said dryly. Paul, bringing a plate of cheese and cold meat to the table, saw Flynn glance up at him, and while he didn't smile, his hard face very definitely registered surprise.
He ate with a restraint that Paul found himself watching while the rest of the family dug in. Carefully, minimally, as if he was barely willing to eat with them at all, as if he grudged himself every mouthful. His table manners were rough to put it mildly, he hunched his shoulders and sat with elbows on the table, tearing off bread with his teeth in a way that Gerry and Roger both looked at with some alarm, but if Paul was any judge, the boy was starving hungry.
"Do you cook for yourself at college, Flynn?" he asked casually, putting the cheese within the boy's reach. Flynn grunted, talking through a mouthful.
Money had to be extremely tight. He was in the middle of a growth spurt, and probably not his final one if he was only nineteen. Paul looked with shrewd eyes at the ribs and the bony wrists and thought that cold lunches were off the menu until further notice. He didn't eat very much in the end, although Paul thought that was down to will more than appetite. The boy radiated independence. No, he didn't radiate it. He carried an aura of it that more or less reached out and whacked you around the head.
At the end of the meal Philip courteously invited Flynn to come and discuss work in his study, and Flynn commented that he didn't bloody mind, but the farming *%&* was going to be done before night fall as he had %*$&*%& college work to do.
There was a kind of shocked silence once he and Philip were out of earshot.
"I can't imagine a family." Roger said after a moment. "I mean who raised that? He stepped out of a jungle somewhere – or a cave."
"Raised by wolves?" Gerry suggested helpfully. "Foul mouthed wolves. He swears like a Shanghai pirate."
"He probably doesn't realise he's doing it," Luath said tolerantly. "If he's come off one of the outback ranches, they'll have been very isolated. Hard work, rough living."
"He's training to be a psychologist." Paul said in some disbelief. Gerry grinned.
"High cure rate,. Well wouldn't you pull yourself together fast if you were shut up in an office with that monster demanding to know how you felt?"
"Come on you two, we've got a river to clear." Luath ordered, getting up. Gerry cringed, burying his face in his arms.
"I've got a note, nothing that involves getting wet-"
"Now." Luath said firmly, never in the least bothered by Gerry. "Paul, need a hand clearing up?"
"I'll be fine." Paul gathered up plates and watched Luath push a complaining Gerry ahead of him towards the corral.
It was always in the afternoons that Paul most missed David. That had usually been when David was too tired to walk or to ride any more, when the heat of the day began to make itself felt on him – which infuriated David who had been ignoring weather for eighty years – and when they most often sat on the porch swing or in the attic or under the trees together and talked, or Paul wrote while David dozed, and while Philip attended to any work that needed doing. David's company had never been anything but delighting, even in David's most difficult or unpredictable moods. Hot tempered, irascible, gentle, funny, always able to make you laugh when you were trying to be firm with him, still as impulsive as a teenager- he had been a very dear friend as much as a charge to be cared for, and Paul had got into the habit of avoiding the porch swing, simply as it hurt too much to be there.
It was not as bad now as in the early days, but Paul still jumped at the hands rested on his shoulders and Philip's voice near by.
"It's far too good a day to be inside."
"I went up this morning to see Jasper." Paul said, tipping his head back. Philip continued to lean, looking down at the peas Paul was shelling. Paul had seen him give that look to many people and shook his head, smiling.
"And you know that won't work on me. What did you do with your Kiwi pirate?"
"I showed him the books in the study." Philip sat down in a chair beside Paul, helping himself to a pod of peas and snapping it open. "I've seen children in candy stores look less starved. I had to emphasise several times before he believed me that he was welcome to help himself to any book in the house. He's a voracious reader according to his college tutor."
Paul nodded, being too long familiar with Philip to doubt that considerable information had been expertly gathered and collated about the new arrival.
"Extremely intelligent." Philip said, leaning back in his chair and eating peas. "Aggressively so. Academic. Acing the psychology theory and research, and apparently drawing rather insightful conclusions that make my college friend wonder if they actually come from Flynn who does not appear on the outside to have much skill at all in basic human communication."
"He isn't qualifying to practice, surely?" Paul said in surprise. "At nineteen?"
Philip shook his head. "An academic degree followed by a research qualification. I think it would be a tremendous mistake to take Flynn at face value just now. We agreed – perhaps not very willingly on his part - that he will come to meals with us, and he will come to me for orders regarding work each morning, and the remainder of his time is his to use as he pleases. I offered him this afternoon to take a look around; he informs me that he knows what a bloody ranch looks like, they're all the same and he just wishes to get on with it – I edit the expletives – and he has gone out to repair fences. I will take him up to see the sheep in the morning and I'd like you to come with us please."
"Jasper doesn't need moral support." Paul said mildly.
"I meant for your benefit rather than his." Philip ate the last pea and leaned forward, putting a hand over Paul's to stop him working. His eyes were steady and very kind.
"When was the last time you rode for pleasure? Not running after Jasper or any of the rest of us, but just taking some time for yourself? I want you to take some time in the afternoons and read. Write. Go out of the house and stop working."
"I like working." Paul said peaceably. "And much of it isn't working, it's playing. I love to cook, you know I do. And I'm not exactly rushed off my feet."
"I want you to take that time." Philip repeated patiently. "Paul? One hour a day. Just that."
"I don't need it."
"Promise me." Philip got up, stooping to drop a kiss on Paul's forehead, hand against his face. "I'm an old man, be nice to me."
It was one of David's sayings, and Paul smiled, unwillingly nodding.
"All right, if it'll make you happy, but I have no idea what I'll do with the time."
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2010