Authors: N.R. Walker
RED DIRT HEART IV
By N.R. Walker
Welcome to Sutton Station: One of the world’s largest working farms in the middle of Australia—where if the animals and heat don’t kill you first, your heart just might.
For those who took a chance on me years ago, and for those who are with me still,
“People who truly live in the outback listen to it. What they hear I do not know… What the country says is beyond words.”
IAN PARKES, A Youth Not Wasted
“How can mere red dirt and stones and scrubby trees and shrubs and rises and falls in the land and haze and a vast blue sky be so potent? Such was its power, even in the intense heat, even at night—sometimes, especially at night—the landscape seized you.”
IAN PARKES, A Youth Not Wasted
Information prior to reading:
Size matters—Sutton Station, while fictional, is based on a working property in the middle of Australia and is three hours’ drive to the nearest town. Sutton Station is 2.58 million acres (10,441 square kilometres). In comparison, the largest ranch in the USA is King Ranch at 825,000 acres (3,340 square kilometres). Sutton Station is the third biggest station in the Northern Territory and is classed as desert. Sutton Station is approximately the same size as Lebanon.
The Northern Territory is a federal territory in between Queensland and Western Australia. It’s like a state, just don’t call it that to someone who lives there.
Australian Terminology Glossary:
Station: Farm, ranch.
Paddock: Large fenced area for cattle; a pasture.
Holding yard: Corral.
Swag: A canvas bed-roll.
Ute: Utility pickup truck.
Motorbike: Motorcycle, dirt bike.
Akubra: Australian cowboy hat.
Scone: American sweet biscuit, usually eaten with cream and jam.
Pub: Bar/drinking venue, usually serves meals.
Trolley: Shopping cart.
Car park: Parking lot
Driza-bone: Oiled coat farmers wear to protect from rain and wind.
Stockman: Australian Cowboy
In the roof: In the roof cavity/attic.
Crook: Feeling unwell.
To powder: “He powdered.” To be of no use. Usually a derogative term.
Livin’ on Charlie Sutton time.
Looking at Charlie Sutton was real easy. He was works-the-land fit, with no-fussing short brown hair, sun-tanned skin, the brownest brown eyes and a killer smile.
When he showed it, that is.
Like now, lazin’ in the sunshine with his eyes closed, the corner of his lips were curled just so. He was wearing his swimming trunks—or boardies, as he called ’em—his hair was still a little wet from the pool, and water was drying on his skin. I could look at him all day.
“What?” he asked. He didn’t even open his eyes. “I know you’re lookin’ at me. I can feel it.”
I rolled onto my side on the sun chair beside the pool, shoved my arm under my head and full-on stared at him. “We should vacation more often,” I told him.
He opened one eye, looked right at me, smiled and went back to snoozin’. “I’ve vacationed more these last eighteen months than I have my entire life.”
I thought back to the other trips we’d done. Charlie wanted me to see more of the Northern Territory than just the Alice and Sutton Station. He took me to Kakadu, to Uluru and Kings Canyon, which to most people are just spectacular natural wonders. To me they were a geological history lesson, and Charlie said I drove the tour guides nuts with questions. But it was incredible, and it made me fall in love with this place just a little bit more.
Right now we were in Darwin, the Territory’s capital, the most northern capital in Australia. Closer to Indonesia than any other major city in Australia, it was the smallest, most laid-back capital of anywhere I’d seen. It was more like a big coastal country town, but there were some creature comforts. Like being poolside at the SkyCity Hotel. Five stars of absolute luxury.
But it wasn’t the marble foyers and expensive furniture, fancy food and room service that I loved. It was seeing Charlie all well-slept and stress-free that made it worth every penny.
We’d spent the entire morning in bed, had a late lunch and spent the afternoon by the pool.
“Well, this isn’t technically a vacation.” I rolled onto my back. “We are here for work.”
Charlie lifted his head and looked around the tropical pool, the ferns and the cocktail bar. “Doesn’t look much like to work to me.”
I snorted. “Well, it kind of is. You’re here on official business, and I’m your personal assistant.”
“My personal assistant?”
Charlie laughed and closed his eyes again. He soaked up the sun, the smile still gracing his lips, and he looked so damn good.
I sighed contentedly. Content. That’s what I was. Charlie couldn’t understand it—I think he thought I was crazy—but I just loved it here.
. Not just Australia, not the Outback, not just riding horses and chasing cattle through the red dirt and burning sun. Hell, even winter was warm. I loved it all.
I loved Charlie.
The most stubborn, infuriating, impossible and absolutely wonderful guy. I was still looking at him. I hadn’t stopped yet. Charlie was pretty clear on the no public displays of affection; even though he wasn’t hiding who he was, he still didn’t want to be blatantly offensive about it. He’d reasoned that we were here on business and should act accordingly, which I had no problem with.
The fact that he’d put his hand on my back when we stepped into the elevator or how he’d make a point of touching me if he thought someone was checking me out made me smile. It was such a Charlie thing to do. He was a mix of old-fashioned gentleman and green-eyed monster, and the way he struggled with both was almost comical. He was the type to hold a door open for me, and he’d blush and smile at a compliment. But if he thought for one second another guy was even thinkin’ of hitting on me, he’d find a way to touch me in a not very subtle he-belongs-to-me-so-fuck-off kind of way.
And belong to him I did.
We were technically engaged. I’d asked him to marry me and he said yes. But we hadn’t told anyone or made it more official than that. I didn’t need to. Just knowing was enough.
Like I said. Content. Happy. At peace with my place in the world. Home.
I just wished we could stay right by that pool all night, but our time here in Darwin was short and our list of things to do was long. “What time is dinner tonight?”
“Sam said they’d get here around seven.”
Sam, Charlie’s new-found brother, lived in Darwin, and we’d already seen him twice in the two days we’d been here. Charlie suggested dinner at the hotel we were staying at, and Sam suggested hitting the bars the next night. We had a dinner meeting already planned, Charlie had explained, but Sam insisted we go out afterward. So Charlie relented, and our three-day stay in Darwin was fully booked.
Not that I minded. I loved that Charlie was forging a relationship with Sam. They spoke on the phone often in the last twelve months, and although this was our first time visiting Sam and Laura, Charlie’s biological mother, in Darwin, Sam had visited us at the station twice. He loved it. It was like some working farm-stay vacation for him. He got to ride horses and dirt bikes, camp out, and he did his share of jobs and chores.
I liked Sam. He was a so much like Charlie, just a city version is all, and despite my hesitation at the very beginning, I was so glad they’d met. I’d even taken to liking Laura. She was patient with Charlie, and Lord knows if anyone’s gonna get to know Charlie, they needed patience by the truckload. It seemed to me that Laura’s motive for reconnecting with Charlie wasn’t for herself, but more for her son. She wanted Sam and Charlie to be brothers, or friends at the very least.
Which they were. They just kinda clicked.
They had the same sense of humour, which meant they found things funny in their heads. When someone said something, they’d just kind of look at each other and smile, as though only they understood the reference. It was entertaining to watch, and dinner was no different.
Sam, his girlfriend Ainsley, Laura and her husband Steve met us at the restaurant. Charlie, looking all clean-shaven, well-dressed and smelling even better, spent the night talking and laughing with his brother. He had his foot hooked around mine or his hand on my knee under the table most of the night, and I’d smile every time he’d laugh. “No, no, no,” he said, telling them about the email he’d received about taking on another post-grad student for an exchange program, like the one I’d done that landed me on his doorstep. “Last time I agreed to that, the bloody guy never left,” he said, putting his arm around my shoulder.
Everyone laughed at that, or maybe at my expression. “Thanks a lot. I specifically remember someone asking me to stay.”
Charlie chuckled and squeezed my knee. “And the guy before that was an English fella who almost cooked himself.”
Sam laughed. “Didn’t handle the heat too well?”
“Nah, apparently not. I was in Sydney when he was there, so I didn’t see firsthand, but from what I heard, it wasn’t pretty.”
“But the American guy worked out okay, didn’t he?” Ainsley asked, winking at me.
Charlie looked at me and smiled. “Yeah, yeah. I’ve decided to keep him.”
“So why don’t you want another agronomy student?” Sam asked. “Everything’s settled down for you now, hasn’t it? I mean, you were busy as hell before, but it’s quieter now, isn’t it?”
“It is,” Charlie conceded, and then he shrugged. “Everything right now is perfect. I’ve got my degree—finally—thanks to Trav, I’ve got another year at least on the board of the Beef Farmers Association, we’ve got the supermarket supplier contract, Ma’s been given the all-clear health-wise and everything’s running smoothly.”
“He doesn’t want to jinx it,” I told them. “Charlie seems to think if he pushes his luck, it will all go to shit.”
Charlie didn’t even try and deny it. He just laughed. “Everything is great at the moment. I don’t need some kid from God-knows-where gettin’ lost in the desert.”
My mouth fell open. “I’m not some kid. And I didn’t get lost in the desert. Your horse threw me off.”
Charlie’s eyes widened as he obviously realised what he’d said and he squeezed my knee. “I didn’t mean
!” He laughed. “But yes, you did all those things.”
I fought a smile. “Yeah, it’s all fun and games until someone nearly dies in the desert.”
Charlie smiled at me, but there was a softness in his eyes, and he leaned his arm against mine a bit, giving me a gentle nudge in an it-wasn’t-fun-and-games-at-all kind of way.
“How’s Nugget?” Laura asked.
“Oh, he’s great,” Charlie said, lighting up immediately. “Still a pain in the butt. Well, he’s less of a pain in the butt now that I don’t have to feed him at night, but he still runs around the house.”
“Still chews everything,” I added.
Charlie chuckled at that. “He chews Trav’s things. Not anyone else’s.”
Laura laughed. “And how is that adorable little Grace?” It had been a few months since Laura had seen her.
“Well, Gracie’s just the cutest thing,” Charlie said. “She’s walking now, saying some words. I’m trying to get her to say ‘Uncle Charlie,’ but it just makes her laugh.” Charlie just beamed when he talked about Trudy and Bacon’s little girl. He always did. “It’s her birthday this weekend. That’s why we gotta go home the day after tomorrow. There’s a very important party we need to get ready for.”
“Charlie’s spoiling her rotten,” I told her.
her,” he said defensively. “I just…”
“Spoil her,” I finished for him. I was smiling at him. That girl had him wholly wrapped around his little finger. He might have been some tough cattle rancher, but that little girl would just have to giggle and put her arms up to him, and he’d pick her up and be a big puddle of baby goo.
Yet I still couldn’t get him to talk about having kids with me.
He had no clue how to see himself the way I do or how to think he deserved such things in life. It’d taken me two years just to get him to realise he deserved to be loved. I knew I was in for a long haul to get him to see he could get married and have kids. But I didn’t mind. I could wait.
I knew his reluctance, his hesitation in wanting kids had nothing to do with me. It was a deep-rooted fear of being a father—or more to the point, being
I knew that. I just had to get Charlie to see it too.
And what I thought might take years and the slowest of steps took a huge freakin’ leap that night. After a whole year of nothing, not a word, not a mention, Charlie said something I wasn’t supposed to hear.
After we’d eaten dinner, we moved to the bar. It was a five-star resort-style bar, there were patio chairs and tables by the pool, and we found ourselves having a few after-dinner cocktails. I had offered to buy a round for all of us and Laura had come with me to the bar. Charlie and Sam were talking, and maybe there was a lull in the music or maybe his voice carried, but we could hear Charlie crystal clear.
“Travis asked me to marry him.”
Just like that.
Laura’s eyes shot to mine, and her hand went to my arm. She was smiling. “Is it true?”
I was stuck for words, dumbfounded that after a year of barely talking about it to me, he’d just blurt it out like that. “Um.” I shook my head in wonder and snorted. “Um, yes.”
“Why didn’t you tell us earlier?” she asked. An innocent question, really.
“Well, I asked him a year ago. He said yes, but, um…” I tried to think of how to say this without hurting her feelings, “Well, he hasn’t mentioned it in a long while, and I’m guessing he just wants Sam to know.” I cringed. “Sorry, but I don’t think we were supposed to hear that.”
Laura glanced over to Sam and Charlie and her smile faltered just a bit, but she took a breath and raised her chin. “I’m just glad they get along. They have each other now and that’s all I can really ask for.”
“I’m glad too,” I told her. “And I’m glad he has you, as well. I know you’ve chatted over the last year or so, and I know he still seems a little defensive sometimes, but, Laura, can I tell you something?”
Laura took a deep breath, as if steeling herself for bad news, but she nodded. “Yes, of course.”
I turned to face the bar and spoke quiet enough so there was no way Charlie could hear. “When I first came here, he was… I don’t want to say the word
, because he wasn’t, but he was very detached from the people in his life. I guess he figured the only way to be with people and to survive at Sutton Station was to be just like his dad.”
Laura nodded sadly. “Oh. I gathered that much from what George and Katie told me. Charlie never talks about it…”
That didn’t surprise me. “He won’t talk about it. It’s not easy for him. It’s taken me two years to fix him, Laura, and I’m a long way from being done.”
She gave me a sad smile. “You’re so good to him.”
I looked back at Charlie then, who was now laughing at something Sam had said. “Don’t think him not telling you things about himself is a reflection on you, because it’s not. It’s about him. But I can tell you this much, the fact that he wants you in his life, that you’re here with him now
, is huge for him. And him telling Sam just now about us being engaged”—I shook my head slowly—“well now, that’s kinda monumental.”