Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Taverners' Inn

The Taverners' Inn

They gathered at Christmas from all corners of the US and even those abroad came when they could. The influx began usually in the week before Christmas as people’s vacation time kicked in, and while Christmas Day was the one where the most of them were here, many came and went and others stayed until the new year.

There were always plenty of hands to help during the holidays with the daily work. Plenty of men who missed riding out and handling stock and who pulled on the working jeans, boots and jackets they all possessed that withstood the dirt and the hard wear outdoors and who all knew what to do with the stock, with the fences, with the outbuildings they helped repair, with the shelters they helped to build. Flynn and Jasper often put them to work with the annual construction and repair jobs to the house and outbuildings if the weather permitted and they did it with enthusiasm in groups that talked and laughed while they worked, glad to spend any time together. They ate around the table in the kitchen with all the leaves out, which could mean tightly crowding round and squashing in the larger members of the family and some sitting on the old chairs brought out from the barn, and in the evenings they grouped together on the porch, around the fire in the family room, in the study where the oldest members of the family tended to gather and hold court, in the kitchen where Paul was enjoying himself setting bread and preparing tomorrow’s meals with a number of willing helpers and they talked, swapped stories and reminisced late into the evening.

It was frequently noisy in the house while they were all here, busy and with an atmosphere that was more powerful than anything Dale had ever seen or felt anywhere else because they brought with them what already lived within the house. These men loved to be together and valued it. They loved to be in this house and on this land, and the spread of personalities and ages among them kept the celebration gentle and warm rather than raucous. In the evenings when people assembled in groups and circulated around the groups the house hummed with sound but it was peaceful sound, calm and kept that way without effort by the men among them who were capable of bringing the noise down with their tone of voice or a gesture, and the men among them who just as easily responded to those clues without a definite word being said. There was an attuned ease to it that was fascinating to watch.

You would have had to have been a stone not to love being included in it. Dale, with a full understanding of what stamp Philip and David had left on these gatherings, valued it more than he could have consciously expressed. He knew Flynn and Paul and Jasper kept him and Riley fairly close while the house was busy, although it was so discreetly done that even in this household where everyone shared in the lifestyle they lived he thought only he and Riley were really aware of it, just as for the most part any overt evidence of discipline was invisible in the other couples day to day. Without having been included in the private aspect of their relationships, Dale still would have struggled to define Top from brat when they were gathered around the fire or repairing the barn roof.

He had expected it to be harder this year. In the days before Christmas it had nagged at the very back of his mind, until Paul got hold of him at dawn on the morning they went Christmas shopping together in Cheyenne. The others were still dressing upstairs, the two of them were usually the first downstairs together and Paul pulled Dale into his lap as he did every morning to share the mug of tea he was drinking, and put a hand under his chin to make Dale look at him. His eyes were warm and relaxed despite the skirmish he had just had on the landing with Flynn about not wearing the stained and torn jeans he’d put on, and he said it as if they had all the time in the world.

“Ok, let’s get this straight because this is our first definite Christmas event. I’m going to take a guess that this is feeling hard this year? Last year everything was new and you had ways of separating yourself if it got a bit too personal and a bit much, and now we know the tricks and we’re going to know if you do it.”

And call him on it. Which he needed them to do, which he wanted them to do. In theory. All the time except when it was actually happening. It was pretty much the same as Riley’s view of the discipline aspect of their relationship: a vigorous supporter of it and firmly committed to it, excluding the actual moments of being disciplined. Paul ran a finger over his cheek to break the rather manically speeded internal dialogue.

“Hey. It’s hard. We know it’s hard. I bet you’re thinking too that this year it might bring back memories of what other Christmases were like, because you do actually let yourself remember now. And some of those memories might not be so nice. And any day now people are going to start arriving who don’t know you as well as we do and are going to be watching you handle it.”

He paused, his dark blue eyes soft and very warm on Dale’s, hard to look at in some ways but you would have had to be crazy to look away. Instead Dale turned around in the privacy of the kitchen with only the two of them and hugged him hard, wrapping his arms around Paul’s neck, and Paul hugged him back strongly.

“So let’s talk about what’s going to happen, because we’re good at this, you and I. There is going to be a house full of people who love you. You’re going to have a great time, you’ll get to do lots of great things and have a lot of fun doing them, and sometimes it’ll get too much and when it does we’ll handle it. You know we can. So I don’t want you to let it get in the way of you doing everything you want to do and enjoying yourself.”

That helped. Just hearing it took away so much of the stress. Dale paused, reflecting on that before he voiced something else he’d been considering for a few days now without knowing what he really felt about it.

“I don’t know whether – would you still like me to send something to my mother this year?”

“Do you have any strong feelings about it?”

“No, I have no idea what I feel about it.” Dale said frankly.

Paul gave him a calm and uncritical nod. “If you didn’t want to then I wouldn’t insist. But if you’re not sure, then I’m going to say I’m happy to do it for you if you want and for as long as you want, but let’s not burn your bridges, hon.”

It was a surprisingly reassuring answer, a way to deal with it that was ‘we’, not ‘you’. Paul gave him another hug and got up, passing him the mug of tea.

“Finish that, I’m going to chase the others downstairs and we’ll get on the road. And have a lovely day shopping. Together. At gun point if necessary.”

 “You’re really going to enjoy it?” Dale said dryly. Paul laughed and kissed him before he let him go, pulling Dale’s face against his.

“My Christmas is only complete when Flynn has been a complete and utter pain in the neck in a mall. Besides, I have you for support now.”


A group of them went into Jackson the day before Christmas Eve. The house was fairly full by then, breakfast was late and chaotic as Dale and the others had been up for several hours dealing with the stock in the pastures nearest the ranch where it was easiest to combat the snowfall. Riley, mouth full and his cheeks still slightly wind burned pink from the two foot deep covered pastures outside, waved a roll at Flynn to get his attention.

“We were planning to head up to Jackson this morning, Gerry’s got last minute shopping to do,”

“Of course, when is he ever prepared?” Wade added acidically from further down the table. “I’ll go, don’t worry. I’ll keep an eye on them.”

“It was pouring in Seattle and I was busy,” Gerry said blithely, “And much more fun shopping here.”

“Yeah, we’ll all get Stetsons for Christmas again.” Darcy said to Ash, who smiled but shook his head.

“You won’t, I see to it most of the shopping gets done in September.”

“In September.” Gerry said sadly. “You see, he’s hopeless? Far too organised. I keep telling him the whole point of Christmas shopping is that it’s supposed to be this last minute glorious rush in total mayhem, David was a natural at it. I only need a few odds and sods.”

And Gerry had been doing his Christmas shopping in Jackson most of his adult life; Dale had no difficulty understanding. He valued those kind of family rituals deeply himself, all the more so for having been adopted into them.

“Who else is planning on this?” Luath inquired. Gerry raised his hand, Darcy, Bear and Riley grabbed Dale’s hand and raised it along with his.

Flynn finished a mouthful of bacon and nodded. “It’s mild, not much ice this morning. Fine so long as Riley or Dale does the driving, they’ve had the most recent practice at handling the local roads.”

“We don’t get to go into Jackson mob-handed nearly often enough now.” Gerry said with satisfaction as Dale drove past the boundaries into the town. “We used to go en masse when I was young and beautiful, all of us together with Philip and do the haircuts and dentist stuff and everything else since we only came into town once a month or so. The Sheriff used to say he wanted prior warning, although there was only one real fight we ever got into and that was mostly David’s fault.”

“It usually was.” Wade agreed. “Before this place became a tourist trap.”

“I like the tourist trap.” Gerry, who was in a lively mood and had been chattering for most of the drive, leaned happily from the back seat on Dale’s shoulder to get a better view as Dale turned towards the town centre. “It’s packed, I knew it would be.”

“He gets off on being crushed in crowds.” Darcy  said, and Bear, who had taken the shotgun seat largely because if he squashed in the back there was no room for anyone else, made his deep hee hee hee sound. He’d said very little through the drive, he rarely did when Dale saw him in company, although he missed nothing of what was going on from his frequent white toothed quiet grins and his chuckle. His voice was even deeper than Luath’s, Dale could feel the vibration of him laughing as much as hear it. His huge arms were bare below the short sleeves of his faded t shirt under his usual workman’s overalls, even with the snow on the ground, although he’d brought a jacket with him and stuffed it in what the family called the trunk and Dale thought of as the boot.

“I’m not fighting through the mob, I already did all that with the singing penguins in Cheyenne,” Riley said darkly, “Seriously, there were singing penguins in the mall. Flynn went nuts.”

“How bad was he this year?” Darcy asked, grinning. Riley nodded at Dale.

“Not terrible, I found the answer. Marry a man with OCD, they’re fantastic.”

Dale laughed and Riley caught his eye in the mirror, flashing him a quick, private smile.

“He and Paul organise it all in half the time Paul used to. I made it through the whole day without getting swatted, Paul was still talking to us by the end of it and it wasn’t that long before we got to go and eat. I’ve seen it much worse than that. But I’ve still done all the shopping this year I’m going to. We can split up and meet for lunch somewhere before we head home. The pizza place?”

“Oh Lord not pizza,” Wade complained, “Some of us have a digestion to think about,”

“The Taverners’ Inn,” Gerry said at the same time. “Not some tacky chain place, let’s have a decent drink at the tavern, it’s the one place that still looks the same as it did when I first went into it.”

So they split up at the antler arch in the town square, Gerry and Darcy going one way, Bear and Wade who both liked to take life at a slower place and didn’t care about shopping in another with Wade moving slowly but steadily on the salted sidewalk with an arm through Bear’s, and Riley gave Dale a resigned look, zipping his jacket higher.

“I guess we’re saying hello at the museum?”

The curator was becoming something of a friend of Dale’s. The museum was busy with the flocks of tourists come for the skiing, but he waved when he saw them, and came over for a chat as soon as he could. Riley, who liked conversation more than he liked the exhibits, cheerfully joined in with the discussion about the latest museum acquisitions, the curator promised to email Dale some information on them, and went to answer the questions of a large clamouring mob of children with brightly coloured scarves and hats. Dale, grateful for Riley’s willingness to handle the museum even for very short periods, left promptly and walked with Riley through the prettiest streets of the snowy town, past the Christmas lights and the decorated shop windows, the hanging baskets along the railings and the floods of people wandering in and out of the shops where Christmas music was playing. A band struck up in the town square playing Christmas carols, and Riley stood with his hands dug in his pockets to listen to them, while Dale who had considerably better patience, queued for the two cups of coffee he carried back.

“What on earth is a gingerbread latte anyway?”

“You didn’t buy one did you?” Riley demanded, taking his coffee and sniffing it suspiciously. Dale leaned on the railing beside him, taking the lid off his to drink.

“I did not. Your cappuccino and my flat white.”

“The most straight up coffee they have.” Riley said, straight faced.  Dale gave him a shuddup look, swallowing scalding coffee with satisfaction. When you had it so rarely, it became a deep satisfaction, a pleasure, very different to the coffee he’d thrown back without noticing in the days when he drank it constantly. He’d never simply walked around a town at this time of year either, doing nothing more than looking at the decorations, listening to the sounds and people watching in the way Riley loved to do. He’d never made any connection with or enjoyed the season before last year when he’d been part of a family who did it thoroughly and showed him how to. Last year he’d simply thought of his previous Christmases in his working life as something like a shower of rain – something that went on beyond the window but didn’t really affect him much or register on his attention. This year.....

Yes, if he was honest, he could remember further back than that, to the house in Ludlow where Christmas had been celebrated with multiple fashionable guests he’d avoided and decorations that had been classy and cold and formal and the best that Harrods could supply, and he’d spent as much time out of the way reading or riding as he possibly could, and eating from the kitchen pantry as needed to avoid mealtimes. He’d behaved in many ways like a house ghost rather than a visitor, and nothing had ever happened to suggest this was a problem. If he had to guess, he suspected his mother had probably been grateful for his evasiveness and he suspected further that Flynn would ask him who he thought had been enabling whom. It had only been when he came to the ranch where they flatly refused to tolerate it that he’d realised that to most people it was socially inappropriate for one to discreetly absent oneself from any group or social events.

Part of him was complaining, loudly, that his mother was not going to be allowed to interfere with this place or this Christmas. And another part of him said far more bluntly, don’t be so damn silly. Many of the other men who called the ranch home had very similar experiences in their past, no few had taken the time to share them with him and let him know he wasn’t alone. Riley. Flynn. Gerry. Wade. And Philip and David, who had worked on making these men not into casual friends or acquaintances but family when few of them had other family, had established a culture of a family Christmas that was for many of them infinitely richer than they’d known before, exactly so they could put aside what had been and concentrate on the good of what was.

They met the others in the Taveners’ Inn, the oldest and smallest of the bars in town, which was still full of the original wooden interior, was not on the main tourist streets, nor full of the live music, dancing and entertainment that the flashier bars were entertaining crowds with. This bar mostly contained locals in heavy jackets against the cold outside, was exclusively male and instead of Christmas music, muted country and western was playing quietly on the juke box. The sole nod to Christmas was a single battered silver bauble tied to the clock above the bar. There were tables in the room but most people were sitting at the bar itself, and Gerry, Wade, Darcy and Bear were gathered at one end, seated behind pitchers of beer. Riley led Dale across to them, taking the nearest seat and grimacing at the beer.

“I guess the two of us are stuck with the designated driver role.”

“Guess you are.” Darcy toasted him peaceably with his glass and took another swallow. “Very right and proper, you two are the youngest. But I’ll stand you a coke.”

“Coffee.” Riley corrected. “Too cold for coke. Did you get everything you wanted, Ger?”

“He only got three things.” Wade said pointedly, leaning on the bar. He looked tired, but satisfied and was clearly enjoying his beer. “Three. And one of those was a newspaper. This was window shopping, I know window shopping and constructive time wasting when I see it.”

“I found everything I wanted.” Gerry winked at Dale. “And we had a good time. We saw you listening to the band and freezing your cute little nuts off, were they worth it?”

“Mostly.” Riley accepted coffee from the barman who made it look as though permitting coffee in a bar went against his every principle. Dale cupped his hands around his own cup as he received it, looking up at a pen and ink sketch behind the bar of a man labelled Davey Jackson. He knew the name. Jackson had been a trapper in these mountains not so many years before David bought the land and the ranch house on Chance river and the town had been named after him. This had been the same bar where David had sat to drink.

The impulse came to him sometimes, and Dale had to almost consciously give himself permission to give into it, holding on to his warm coffee cup and taking a deep, discreet breath to let it go and let his shoulders drop, his body relax and get comfortable. And then he pulled to mind the warm yellow light, above and below, to the left and to the right, before and behind not just him but the five other men drinking and chatting beside him. And then he relaxed his mind and let it drift.

Within a few seconds he became aware of the distant hum of voices and with care he managed to avoid grabbing for it. Consciously listening for it and trying, because that instantly shut it down. Instead he drank his coffee and went on letting his mind drift and the voices gradually became as loud as the other voices in the room around him, he heard a piano in the far distance combined with the juke box, the sharp smell of tobacco mixed with cigarette smoke. It always made him smile when it happened, like being able to open a picture book and see, the imprints on the building from a time that maybe Wade would have remembered when he was in his early twenties and drank here with David. When the war in Europe was only just over. When Philip and David were in the earliest years of building their life together.

He was listening both to the piano and with half an ear to Gerry loudly discussing the hockey that was in clear view on the tv above the bar, when something grabbed his attention sharply enough to make him turn and look.

For a moment he had no idea what had caught his notice, only that it was urgent, and he scanned the room before he saw what his brain had picked up on from the corner of his eye. The guy was stolid, late forties, heavily bearded and wearing a thick red coat. The cue was in his body language. The colour of his face, his jaw, but most of all his stance. He leaned on the bar, Dale listened with acute ears to his tone as he demanded a drink from the barman, taking no notice of the guy already being served, and the man’s eye direction and throat said everything else that Dale needed to know. He put the coffee cup down gently enough not to attract attention and put a hand out to grip Riley’s arm.

“We’re leaving.”

Riley turned at once, eyes quizzical although he reflexively got to his feet. Gerry gave Dale a startled glance, stopping dead on a criticism of the hockey teams playing, and Dale got up, picking up his coat.

“Quietly. Let’s go.”

Darcy was up with a slightly alarmed expression, Dale herded him and Riley and moved calmly past them to get Gerry and Bear up, taking Wade’s arm to help him. Wade was frowning but got up without argument and Dale steered him across to Riley, well aware that Wade was the least steady on his feet of all of them.

“Out, take him to the car.”

Riley hesitated, clearly unwilling, but Darcy abruptly came to life, took Wade’s arm and hustled him quietly and discreetly through the room and Wade went without a word; Dale suspected he had a fair idea of what was going on. His compliance reached Riley, who picked up his coat and followed, going rapidly across the room to help Darcy with the door.

“Now wait a minute,” Gerry began rather sharply. Dale took his arm in the way that levered people to their feet before they’d quite realised what they were doing, looking past him to Bear who was watching him with placid and large eyed curiosity, apparently the last to have realised there was any need to do anything. He was likely to be rather harder to manhandle and he always seemed considerably slower on the uptake. Getting between him and the man in the red coat, Dale repeated himself, keeping his voice low enough to avoid being overheard by anyone else around them.

“We need to leave. Right now.”

“Yes well an explanation might be nice, you can’t simply bark your orders at me.” Gerry took his arm out of Dale’s grasp slightly more firmly than was polite, looking from him to Darcy and Riley as they and Wade went outside. “What exactly is going on?”

On cue there was a crash from further along the bar and Gerry jumped, hard. The man in the red coat had slammed his glass down with all his force. The glass broke. Dale heard the man’s voice snap from a growl to a full throated shout at the man beside him who was debating the manners of waiting in queues to be served. He’d only been waiting for a trigger. The tone and the volume said that reasoning was probably off the table. Dale put Gerry out of his way and well behind him, running rapidly through the draft of plan B in his mind as the man in red thrust a hand in the middle of the other man’s chest and shoved, hard enough to send him sprawling. The broken glass was still in his hand. A table was overturned, several people cried out, Dale moved swiftly to get between them and Bear, taking another mouthful of his beer, put his own glass unhurriedly down and lumbered to his feet, following him and coming to a halt right in front of the man in red before Dale could stop him.

Dale saw the man’s eyes focus in the middle of Bear’s chest, then travel all the way upwards to Bear’s face which a good foot above his own, taking in Bear’s breadth and sheer bulk and the muscles of the huge, bare arms like hams, and it made him hesitate. Bear looked back at him for a moment that seemed to go on forever and the room around them somehow got very quiet. Then Bear turned his head and looked in apparent total bewilderment at the man on the floor. His deep voice was suddenly a good deal more Southern accented than usual.

“Wha’s goin’ on?”

No one answered him. Dale moved discreetly and with slow steps to where he could, if necessary, grab the man’s glass holding hand from behind. Bear stared again at the man in red with large eyes, apparently trying to figure it out despite the obvious clue of the broken glass.

“You pushed him?”

Again no one answered. The room was silent. Bear looked back to the man on the floor.

“An’ you hollered at him?”

“He pushed in front of me and made a bunch of threats-“ The man on the floor began, apparently not keen to get up. The man in red opened his mouth and then he stopped dead, his eyes changed completely from their targeting stare, and Dale found himself frozen in horror along with the rest of the room as Bear’s eyes grew larger... and larger... and suddenly tears spilled out in a flood and rolled down his broad face.

“Oh now look what you’ve done.” Darcy said irritably, weaving back through the crowd. He sounded as exasperated as if this happened every day, and he walked into the middle of the crowd as if they weren’t there to take Bear’s arm. He didn’t succeed in moving it an inch, he might as well have tried to guide the wall. Bear stood right where he was and sobbed.

“Come on.” Darcy said patiently to Bear. “Bear it’s all right. Let’s go.”

Bear didn’t budge, summoning up words in amongst the sobs which he addressed ardently to both the man in red and the man on the floor.

“That’s mean.”

It was so utterly, earnestly disillusioned that combined with those huge eyes and that honest, bewildered face, most of the men in the room were now looking as guilty as if they’d burst a toddler’s balloon. The man on the floor got up, brushing off his hands and muttering rather awkwardly that he was all right, there was no harm done and everyone had bad days. Another man who had had nothing whatever to do with the argument, surreptitiously picked up the table and another man replaced the chairs. The man in red retreated several steps, the broken glass hanging limply from his hand. Then he dropped a handful of coins on the bar, put the broken glass down with it and headed out of the door, fast. There was more scuttle than threat in his step.

Dale leaned on the bar and had a fast word with the stunned barman, then took Bear’s jacket and Gerry’s coat from where they lay and put out a hand without touching Gerry to usher him towards the door. Gerry, looking rather shocked and subdued, moved at once and Dale went to take Bear’s other arm as Darcy managed to tow him to the door onto the street. It was as Dale held the door back for him that Bear, still sobbing pathetically, caught his eye and Dale saw a swift and unmistakeable wink from one large brown eye.

Out on the street, Wade was leaning on Riley’s arm with a sharply shrewd expression as he surveyed the progress of the man in red who was heading towards an illegally parked truck at the far end of the sidewalk. He had a phone in hand and was completing a call, his voice low but decisive, and at the sight of them he finished the call and lowered the phone, surveying them sharply.

“All right? Did you have to get the glass off him?”

“No, Bear turned the taps on but good and he left, no one had to touch him.” Darcy took Gerry’s jacket from Dale and pushed it towards Gerry, shaking his head.

“Trust you to throw a fit and start demanding information instead of just shutting up and moving.”

“I’m sorry, but you scared the living daylights out of me,” Gerry said penitently to Dale. “Darling you cannot go about looking like that at people without them urgently needing a change of underwear,  I had no idea why you’d suddenly turned terrifying on me. Bear, for goodness sake have a handkerchief, we’ll be surrounded by homicidal elderly ladies any minute now wanting to know what we’ve done to you.”

It was the fact he clearly spoke from experience that finished Dale off. As Bear accepted the handkerchief and mopped off his face, beginning the unmistakeable hee hee hee, Dale put his back against the wall of the bar, propped his hands on his knees and lost any remaining self control. There was a moment of slightly shocked silence before Riley put a hand on Dale’s back and leaned beside him, saying reassuringly to the others,

“It’s ok, he’s laughing.”


“How did you know the guy was going to blow?” Darcy said much later that evening when they were gathered in the family room, in various stations from Jasper who was seated on the hearth with Dale on the floor leaning against his legs, to Flynn and others in the armchairs, Paul and Wade on the couch and Riley stretched out on the hearthrug.

“Threat indicators.” Bear said in his deep, slow voice, taking Dale again by surprise. “Stare. Stance. Tone.”

“Bear,” Darcy explained to Dale from where he was sitting cross legged on the floor in front of the couch by Gerry, “Was one of the best bouncers the Portland nightclubs ever had. The manager practically went down on his knees and cried when Bear quit to work full time at the zoo. He told me he’d had no violent incidents for two years while Bear was there.”

“And the regulars used to turn en masse to shut up anyone who looked like upsetting him.” Theo said placidly. Two thirds of Bear’s size, he was sitting on the arm of Bear’s chair, his bright red hair sticking straight up above his round framed glasses. He was as ordinary in appearance as Bear was extraordinary, as plain as Bear was quite unconsciously beautiful, a skinny and angular man with a habit of sitting back and watching from the sidelines where Bear simply joined in with whatever went on, sociable and liking to keep his large hands occupied. They were the most unlikely looking couple, but there was never any doubt of the affection between them. Bear glanced over at him and grinned, turning over the plug he was engaged in re wiring in much the same way Jasper was carving a stick of wood in his hand, but didn’t comment.

“Wade phoned in the guy’s number plate and description to the Sheriff as soon as we got outside,” Riley said. “And Dale got the barman to make a report too.”

“The parking offense was a help,” Wade added. “Not to charge him for it, no evidence unless it was seen in place, but an excuse for someone to call and check what state he’s in. You see a guy that close to the edge and he’s an accident looking for somewhere to happen.”

“Was he drunk?” Riley asked him. “I wasn’t close enough to see.”

“I don’t think so.” Wade glanced at Dale for confirmation. “I’d be thinking more on who just left him, and what’s going on at home. With that kind of explosiveness you start worrying about domestic homicide. Cabin fever used to be a real problem out in the rural areas come winter when places got cut off, I saw it around here when I was young. People penned up alone and permanently cold to the bone, white outs with the snow. Men lost their minds.”

“That’s what comes of letting you lot go anywhere in a gang.” Luath said darkly. Jasper smiled, shaking wood shavings off into the fire.

“One cop, one bouncer and Dale. If they couldn’t get out of the situation-”

Dale saw Gerry’s eyes go rather guiltily to Ash, who put a hand out to cover his and hold it. 

“- then they were probably the best equipped in the room to deal with it.”

“You were outside?” Flynn said shortly to Riley who gave him an impatient nod.

Yes, I’ve told you twice. Dale said go, and Wade, Darcy and I got the hell out of there, and Wade called the Sheriff. There wasn’t much else we could do, and the guy lost it before we were out the door. How were we supposed to know there’d be a maniac in there today?”

“Come here.” Flynn said sharply. Riley got up, scowling, and Flynn yanked him down into his lap. Riley hooked an arm around his neck and gave him an equally grouchy hug.

“It would have happened just the same way if you’d been there.”

“It wouldn’t, because if you were with me, you wouldn’t have been in a bar in the first place.”

“I’d rather you stuck to the restaurants.” Paul agreed. “You never usually want to go in the bars.”

“That was my fault too,” Gerry said rather quietly, “David used to take me into the Taverners’, I’ve been in there plenty of times and there’s never been a problem.”

“Mid day in Jackson you’d be safe anywhere,” Wade said brusquely, “We all know that, and the Taverners’ is perfectly safe. If I’d had any doubts at all I wouldn’t have let us go there. Stop fretting Ger. Freak event, they happen.”


When the last of them finally tired of talking and went upstairs to bed, most of the household was already upstairs and asleep. Jasper damped down the fire and locked up and Gerry and Ash, the last to leave the family room, followed him upstairs. Ash kept hold of Gerry’s hand along the dim landing and around the corner to the small and low ceilinged room under the eaves that had been Gerry’s since he was a teenager. It held little more than a chest of drawers and the quilted double bed which looked out through the large window over the snowy yard and up towards the even snowier tops, a pale silver grey in the dark where the trees stood out against the skyline in stiff silhouette. Ash turned on the lamp by the bed and Gerry went to stand by the window, folding his arms to look out.

“It’s cold in here.”

“Only because we’ve been sitting by the fire.” Ash pulled Gerry’s nightwear out from the drawer along with his own, and dug for a sweater, holding them out to him. Gerry sat down on the end of the bed, arms still folded.

“I’m not tired. I think I’ll read for a while.”

“It’s midnight, I think we’re getting some sleep.” Ash put the pyjamas and sweater on his lap. “You take first turn with the bathroom.”

“No, it’s too cold.” Gerry put the clothes on the bed and got up to head for the door. “I’m going to make some tea.”

“Stop there.” Ash said firmly. Gerry paid no attention, just shut the door softly behind him as he left the room. Ash stood for a moment, looking at the closed door. Then he opened it and followed quietly along the landing.

Gerry, moving slowly enough to let Ash know he fully expected to be stopped, didn’t turn to look at him and Ash simply caught him up, took his hand and walked him down the now dark stairs into the family room and towards the study. He switched the light on and closed the door softly behind them as they reached it, and faced Gerry’s furious scowl and folded arms exuding high dudgeon in the middle of the hearthrug.

“What did I say?”

“I said I was going to get some tea. I’m cold.” Gerry hissed back. “Is that illegal?”

“It’s certainly rude.” Ash pointed out mildly. Gerry glared at him.

“All I want is tea. It doesn’t have to be one of your big, fat, hairy deals.”

The problem, in Ash’s experience, with trying to avoid Gerry throwing down the gauntlet, was that if the first hurled one didn’t work the way he wanted, he tended to just go on throwing them harder until one did. Sometimes you could defuse the situation. Tonight was clearly not going to be one of those times.

He said nothing, just moved unhurriedly, simply put his hands on Gerry’s shoulders, turned him around and steered him across to the nearest book lined corner. Gerry growled the entire way and arrived in the corner with a sharp huff that made it clear what he thought and his arms still tightly folded. Ash swatted him and the arms promptly, if unwillingly, came down. Ash stood behind him for a moment longer, saying nothing, just watching, and while Gerry radiated defiance there was no further huffing.

“I’ll be right back.” Ash said to him and left him standing there. He headed upstairs quietly, collected Gerry’s pyjamas and came back down the dark landing. The house was still now, there were no lights visible through the part opened doors and he moved as softly as he could down the stairs to let himself back into the study. Gerry was still standing where he’d been left, shoulders slightly less rigid. Ash put the pyjamas down on the couch and took a seat, glancing at his watch before he leaned over to the bookcase and pulled out a book at random to leaf through.

The study was never much decorated at Christmas. As in Philip’s day, it escaped the decorations that occupied the family room and the kitchen, but every year in Ash’s memory there had always been the same discreet two items that Philip had always placed out in this room during the season, and they were there in their places now. A red poinsettia in a pot, blooming on Philip’s desk, and a small ornament in a distinctive soft blue and white that depicted three kings stood by a manger that occupied its usual place on David’s desk. The mark on it was Wedgewood. Ash suspected the date of manufacture was well before his birth.

He waited twenty minutes before he lowered the book and said mildly,

“Feel like being civil yet?”

The ‘yes sir’ he got was sullen but immediate. Ash re shelved the book and held out Gerry’s pyjamas.

“Good. You can change please.”

Gerry took his time doing it, and it was mostly done with his head down, avoiding his eye. He left his underwear on beneath his pyjamas: something he didn’t usually do and which reflected apprehension and a distinctly forlorn hope. Ash waited until he was finished and folding his clothes – something else he only ever did when stalling for time at night – before he got up and went to Philip’s desk, stooping to open the bottom drawer. They both knew what lay in there. Gerry had long experience of one of those items, of which they had a very similar model at home. But it was the second of the two that Ash took out. The slimmer, transparent lexan paddle, and the sullenness abruptly deserted Gerry’s face to be replaced with pure alarm.

“No, we don’t need that one!”

Ash closed the drawer without debating it and went to take a seat on the couch, beckoning to Gerry. From Gerry’s expression he had no attention left for anything at all except that paddle; lexan was something he had no experience of and he’d completely forgotten about both the mood and the attitude.

“Please not that one?”

Ash leaned over to take his hand and drew him the last few steps, indicating the pyjama bottoms.

“Pull those down.”


Until he’d met Gerry, Ash had never been aware that his name could be made to cover so many syllables. He simply waited, and eventually, with a lot of reluctance, Gerry put his hands to the elastic of his pyjamas and slipped them down to his thighs, modestly uncovering as little as possible. He left his underwear in place which bought him perhaps a few more seconds; Ash waited further, not commenting, and eventually Gerry slid his underwear down too, to just below his bottom. Ash sat back to make it easier for Gerry to settle himself over his knees, and very unwillingly, with an expression on his face that expressed a great deal of what he was thinking, Gerry bent over his lap and laid down, elbows braced on the leather couch, the tips of his toes still just about in contact with the rug. With a hand resting on his back, Ash hefted the lexan paddle discreetly in his palm, evaluating it. He had no experience of lexan either, save from Riley’s freely expressed opinion of it. Smaller than their wooden paddle at home, slimmer, but the density was reflected in the slightly solider weight. He had no intention of that weight making any difference tonight, it was only Gerry’s attention he was after. He waited a moment more, giving Gerry a moment to rest fully on his lap, and then turned his attention to the bare part of his partner, taking underwear and pyjama trousers and lowering them a very good deal further to his ankles. Gerry never liked that, and it tended to be something Ash kept for occasions where he needed to make a very clear impression. It drew a soft whine of protest and apprehension and an increase in the mild fidgeting over his lap, a restlessness born of anxiety.

Ash rested an arm across the small of his back, wrapping his hand around Gerry’s far hip, and tapped the flat of the paddle gently on his bottom.

“Want to tell me about it?”

“You know.” Gerry said in slightly muffled tones. His shoulders were stiff, his head was bent. Ash lifted the paddle and smacked it briskly and firmly with a light hand across the crown of one bare cheek.

“Of course I do. That isn’t the point, is it?”

Gerry jumped at the smack with a good deal more energy than their wooden paddle generally drew with a mild swat, and his voice was high with shock.

“Ouch! Ash!”

“The point is,” Ash paused, delivering a second, unhurried and flexible flip of his wrist to smack the other cheek. “Your behaviour is doing the talking.”

Ow! Ash that stiiiiiiiings....” Gerry squirmed over his knee and Ash held his hip to still him, his voice conversational.

“Isn’t it?”

“Yeeees....   I’m sorry, Ash don’t, that really stings!”

“Are you feeling like you’re in enough trouble yet?”

That was apparently too acute a question. Gerry squirmed instead, shoulders hunching, and Ash delivered another light, snapping swat to an already pink cheek. It drew a shriller yelp, more wriggling and a swift,


“You know there was nothing wrong with going to that bar,” Ash said in the same conversational tone, giving him a minute before he applied another light swat to the other cheek. “You know you weren’t the only one who made the decision.”

This time the swat covered both cheeks and drew the most urgent wriggling yet.


“You did absolutely nothing wrong. Wade told you that this evening. I know that. You know that. Don’t you?”

“I had no idea why Dale suddenly said get out!” Gerry reared up higher on his elbows, getting one hand back to grip Ash’s jeaned shin. It was as near as he could get to stopping himself throwing a hand back to cover his bottom or to try to turn over.

“I know.” Ash said calmly, holding his hips still. “You had no reason to know.”

“I hadn’t even noticed the guy, and it freaks me out when someone suddenly says out, move, we’re leaving!”

“I know. It would me too.”

Another pop lower down with a flexible wrist drew a higher yelp. The paddle made a surprisingly loud crack even lightly applied.


“Did you tell Dale any of that?”

“Yes?” Gerry admitted. Ash applied another, unhurried swat.

“Do you think you might feel better if you told him again?”


The wail was muted and sounded distinctly tearful. Out of all proportion to what was a pretty mild attention getter more than any kind of remonstration. Ash rubbed his hip and the small of his back.

“What do you think?”

Gerry took a few deep and rather gulping breaths before he answered, and from his fidgeting on Ash’s lap he was definitely concerned about the paddle making contact again.

“I don’t know. I don’t...... he probably didn’t think much about it, Darce didn’t. Ri and Wade didn’t.”

“I didn’t think they’d blame you. I don’t think there’s anything to blame yourself for.”

Ash applied another of those low pops and Gerry squirmed hard, unable this time to keep his hand from creeping back to rub. Ash gently collected his wrist and Gerry groaned, a protesting and plaintive sound but let Ash move his hand away.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be vile upstairs, I’m sorry for flouncing out.”

“I know you are honey.” Ash held his wrist at his side along with his hip. “You’re telling me you’re pretty stressed out. That’s ok, I can deal with it.”

“You have, I get it! Really!” Gerry sounded half tearful, half amused. It was generally a good sign, he glanced back with a vulnerable half smile that was the most honest expression Ash had seen since he came home from Jackson. “I get it, I really do, you don’t need to demonstrate any further.”

“You were the one who made it clear conversation wasn’t going to cut it.” Ash pointed out sympathetically. “I respect that decision.”

“I’ve changed my mind.”

Ash smiled but rubbed his hip with his thumb, keeping hold of his wrist.

“Nice try.”

He measured the paddle against the now very pink bottom and applied it unhurriedly, one light swat at a time, and while initially it drew a lot more ouching and hissing and energetic wriggling, pink quickly became glowing and the hissing became a softer and damper sound combined with sniffling. Gerry was considerably limper over his lap, a familiar and known cue of release in his body when Ash laid the paddle down and rested a hand on Gerry’s back.

“Feeling like going to bed now?”

Gerry slid down to his knees with Ash’s help and buried himself in Ash’s midriff, winding his arms tightly around Ash’s waist. Ash hugged him, holding him until Gerry’s breath finally steadied and he got a soft and slightly muffled,


Gerry let go and leaned on him heavily while he found his way to his feet, promptly putting both hands behind him to rub, vigorously, shifting from foot to foot.

“I hate that paddle. Riley and Dale must have buns of steel, it’s like sitting on wasps. If you ever bring one home I’m burning it.”

“I don’t think it would do much damage.”  Ash got up and drew him over to give him another close hug, running a hand down his back to rub gently where he was still no more than a warm, solid pink. “Go on up and get into bed. I’ll bring that tea.”

Red eyed, Gerry wrapped both arms around his neck and kissed him before he let him go.



On nights when the temperature went far enough down, they took in turns to go out at least once in the night to keep the stock’s water from freezing up and to ensure there was still access to feed. The cattle and the sheep were gathered in the nearest pastures around the woodland where the trees and the hollows offered the most shelter and all their stock was born and bred on this land and used to the weather, but at this time of year even the river could freeze at night and the water holes needed regularly breaking out, and it took a higher level of feed for the animals to keep up the calories to stay warm without dropping weight.

Flynn, Dale, Bear and Theo went out quietly at two am, and Dale picked up the thermos of tea Paul had left standing by the kettle before he went to bed, adding it to his saddle bag as he tacked up Hammer. Bear took out two of the shires, tacking them for himself and Theo, and mounting with surprising grace for such a large man. The horses loved him. Whenever Bear went into a paddock or the corral the horses trailed him, and the shires followed him like dogs, whiffling at his coat with their huge noses. The pasture gates were open. At this time of year they were open day and night in case the weather turned rough enough that Bandit brought the mares and the six month old foals down from the tops, although the stallion was an expert practiced at finding the sheltered places that kept his herd out of the wind and safe in all but the very worst of conditions.

In gloves, scarves, thick sweaters and the heaviest of their jackets, Stetsons pulled low as there was a painful bite in the air, they walked the horses over the snowy pasture and Dale tipped his head back to look up at the vault of black sky above them, dotted with stars brilliantly bright, far brighter and stronger than you ever saw in a city. It was a sight he never tired of, like the view of snowy aspen trees against dark pastures, or Flynn riding one handed with the other hand resting on his knee, upright and with his shoulders hunched against the cold. They worked in well co-ordinated silence once they reached the crossing place, walking the horses over the ice and up into the woods, and left them in the shelter of the trees while they took the axes from their saddles down to the shallows along the stretch of river where the stock came down to drink. It wasn’t as cold tonight as it had been in the previous few days. The river was frozen solid around the edges but the chopped out water holes were only shallowly sealed from where they’d been broken in the last of daylight some hours ago. They took the axes and broke them out again, clearing out the chunks of ice with gloved hands to expose the running water below and Bear heaved it out in great sheets without effort, throwing it up the bank into the snow. Already curious cattle were gathering among the trees to watch and several came slowly down the bank to nose around them to reach the water, and not far away Dale could hear the soft and occasional baa of a sheep deep in the woods. In the crisp dark it brought back the words of a carol he’d often sung in chapel at school without ever really thinking about it.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes...

Out here in the dark it was surprisingly easy to think of a young couple huddled in an animal shelter like the ones just beyond the bank.

They’d hauled hay and feed freshly up here to the feeding stations in the late afternoon with the aid of the shire horses who were more reliable than the tractor in this weather, and they’d do it again in the morning. Bear heaved the remaining bale of hay up and broke it apart for the cattle gathered around it. Flynn shone his lantern at the nearest stations, looking over the huddles of sheep crowded together and checking there was feed left before he led the way back to the horses and they broke out the thermos of tea to warm themselves and their freezing hands. Riding back across the pasture, the bright Christmas lights wrapped around the porch rails made the house visible for miles. A beacon in the snow.

They turned the horses into loose boxes in the stables to cool down out of the wind chill and Dale made up the hot feed in the tack room they kept for horses working in the coldest hours of the night who came home hungry. Both the geldings, who knew their rights, were hanging over the gate of their boxes waiting eagerly when he brought the feeds to them, and Flynn waited for him at the stable door, locking it behind them. Bear and Theo were climbing the porch steps ahead of them, headed back to their bed.  

It was Christmas Eve. Dale realised it as they heeled snowy boots off in the kitchen and put them to dry. Anyone working out in the cold at night generally showered when they came back in: it was the fastest way to warm up before going back to bed, Bear and Theo would take the upstairs shower up in the attic where they slept, and Flynn paused only to dig in the pantry for a couple of muffins, handing one to Dale and demolishing the other as he led the way into the kitchen bathroom. They left snow brushed and part frozen jeans to warm and dry, shed the rest of their clothes and Flynn turned the shower on hot, stepping back and bracing one hand on the tiles to let Dale in beside him. He was standing so that Dale was directly in the path of the spray and had first access to it, and he turned Dale to stand with his back to it, rubbing briskly over his shoulders and down his back as the hot water scalded semi numbed skin. It was always the feet that were most painful to thaw. Dale stood for a moment to defrost his back, then stepped back to let Flynn take his place, and Flynn tipped his head back into the spray, closing his eyes, then shaking his head to throw wet hair off his face. It was a movement that always reminded Dale of Bandit.

The man was beautiful, especially at this hour of the night when he was blue jawed and dishevelled. The lines and curves of his chest. The clean, straight lines of his collarbones that always made Dale want to touch. He ran his fingers along the edge of the nearest one, the strong bone beneath smooth, wet skin, and Flynn hooked a hand behind his waist that slid lower, gripped and pulled him close enough to reach his mouth under the spray for a brief, thorough kiss.

“Get your mind on the job, we’re getting warm and getting some sleep.”

Dale swallowed the smile, with very clear evidence that Flynn might be saying that but that sleep was going to have to be postponed for a while.  The steam in the shower was thickening and fully warm for the first time in over an hour, Dale reached past him for a handful of the liquid soap and lathered his hands, fairly innocently running them over his own torso to wash. And then turning those hands on Flynn to do the same for him, and it was only seconds before he heard the familiar low half growl half groan that always preceded Flynn’s hands grabbing. They closed on his hips, turned him around and held him firmly, and for a moment, both slippery, they pressed against each other under the spray before Flynn ran a hand around his hip and swatted him.


Yes please.

Dale reached for a towel and paused as the shower door opened. Riley was naked, and looked far too awake for this time of night, and the sight of him like that in the dark awoke a whole lot more very impractical ideas and impulses that didn’t go with the hour, and didn’t care. Riley leaned against the door frame, giving Dale a quick and wicked grin that took in the whole situation before he addressed Flynn.

“Are you still mad at me or do you need someone to scrub your back?”

Dale laughed. Flynn turned the water off and grabbed a towel to wipe his face.

“It’s the middle of the damn night.”

“I noticed. I can’t sleep.” Riley passed Dale the towel he was in need of. “Looks like I’m not the only one.”

“Get upstairs.” Flynn stepped out of the shower and flicked the towel at Riley. “Move. I’ll lock up and then I’ll deal with the pair of you.”

Damp, Dale followed Riley swiftly upstairs, hoping they didn’t meet anyone on the landing as an explanation for why the two of them were running around naked would be difficult. Following Riley anywhere looking like that was distracting to the point he suspected he’d lack coherence in any explanation anyway.

“Hope I’m not interrupting anything?” Riley said under his breath, heading for Dale and Flynn’s room. “Or rather I hope I am interrupting, but in a good way.”

“Oh definitely in a good way.” Dale followed him, putting the door to behind them as Riley stretched out full length on the bed. “It’s Christmas, and Paul said I was supposed to take every opportunity to enjoy myself.”

He caught the pillow Riley threw at him, tossed it back and Riley yanked him down on the bed beside him as they heard Flynn’s soft footfall start up the stairs.

~ The End ~

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015

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