Charlie Sutton runs Sutton Station the only way he knows how; the way his father did before him. Determined to keep his head down and his heart in check, Charlie swears the red dirt that surrounds him – isolates him – runs through his veins.
American agronomy student Travis Craig arrives at Sutton Station to see how farmers make a living from one of the harshest environments on earth. But it’s not the barren, brutal and totally beautiful landscapes that capture him so completely.
Where the American guy walks in, all blue eyes and disarming smiles, and my life goes to shit.
Just on sundown, I got off the motorbike, kicked the stand down so the bike stood upright without me and closed the gate. I’d been out all day in the South paddocks doing a final check of fences and water trough pumps before we bought the cattle down from the North. I’d seen the ute back at the homestead as I came in so I knew George was home.
George was my leading hand. He was in his fifties, with greying hair and sun-hardened skin. He’d worked here for as long I could remember, but he was more than a loyal employee. He was my friend, and in a lot of ways, more of a dad to me than my own old man ever was.
He’d been out all day, left before sun-up and headed into Alice Springs. We were a good three hours from the nearest town, and with a list as long as his arm from the Station cook, Ma—who also happened to be his wife—he needed a few hours in town before heading out to the airport to pick up the real reason for his trip: an American agronomy student by the name of Travis Craig.
When my father ran this farm, or station as we called it, every year we’d have people from another country come and spend a couple of weeks as part of some Diversification exchange program. My old man always said it was a good way to source out what other countries were teaching, but really I think he just liked the extra pair of hands at the finish of the dry season. And when we’d had a phone call back in July to ask if we’d be interested in hosting another student, and given it’d been a few years, I thought it seemed like a good idea. Now I couldn’t help but wonder if this Travis Craig would be a help or a liability.
I rode the bike into the yard and pulled up in the shed. I figured they’d know I’d arrived, having heard the bike, so I headed straight for the house. Like most homesteads built almost a hundred years ago, it was a weatherboard home, with an old iron roof and a veranda around four sides to try and keep it cool.
I kicked the red dust from my boots on the veranda steps and tried to brush the same from my jeans, took off my hat before I opened the door and walked inside. There was a suitcase and a duffel bag near the front door and voices at the back of the house.
“In the kitchen,” George called out.
I followed the sound of chatter and the smell of something good to find a meeting of sorts in the old country-style kitchen. The worn, solid wooden table that graced the middle of the room was covered with plates of scones and trays of cups and tea, and three people were in chairs around it—my right-hand man, George, his wife the cook, Ma, and a stranger with short light-brown hair and pale blue eyes.
George was the first to his feet, and the man beside him soon followed. “Here’s the boss, Charles Sutton,” George said, introducing me formally. “Charlie, this is Travis Craig.”
Travis looked about twenty-two years old, not much younger than me. Whereas I was a stockier build, with dull brown hair and boring brown eyes, he was taller than me by a few inches and muscular and lean. He held out his hand and smiled. “Mr Sutton. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” His accent was strange to hear at first, but his smile was warm and wide.
I wiped my hand on my shirt and held it out for him to shake. “Travis,” I said with a nod. “Please, call me Charlie.”
He seemed nervous or uncertain, so I figured I’d take the emphasis off him. I threw my dusty old hat onto the table and sat down across from our guest. “Jeez, Ma,” I said, looking at the food on the table. “How many are you feeding?”
“I made ’em for you. They’re your favourite,” she said.
“Are they pumpkin scones?” I asked.
“’Course,” she said proudly. “You boys can finish them for dessert.”
I reached out to grab one, and Ma’s hand came out to stop me. “Not with those dirty hands, Mister. And you can get your hat off my table.”
George chuckled at me, and I looked at Travis and grinned. “I can’t win.”
Ma stood up. “Go and show Travis which room is his, then you can clean yourself up for dinner,” she said to me. She glanced at the clock on the kitchen wall. “Forty minutes, boys.”
I pushed my chair out from the table, and taking his cue, Travis did the same. I got to the door and seeing Ma had her back turned, I quickly grabbed a buttered scone off the table.
“Charles Sutton!” Ma cried, catching me red-handed.
I smiled as I shoved the scone in my mouth, but I was quick to duck around the door, out of the flight path of any kitchen utensils Ma might launch at me. Normally she just threatened me with a ladle or tea towel, but over the years—especially when I was a teenager—if I came in and started picking while she was cooking, I’d have to duck the odd cooking implement.
I laughed down the hallway, and Travis was just a step behind me. He smiled right back at me, and I had to chew and swallow my mouthful of food before I could speak. “I’ll show you to your room,” I told him. I put my hat on the middle hook, as always, picked up his suitcase and left the duffel bag for him. “You’ll stay in the main house while you’re here. There’s three worker’s cottages, but they’re taken. You’ll meet the other guys at dinner.”
I led him through a door off the foyer to a door halfway down the hall. “Your room,” I said, walking in and putting his suitcase on the queen-size bed. There was a dresser and a wardrobe, and the window was open, but the curtain was still. “Your room faces east. You’ll get the early morning sun, not the heat of the afternoon.”
“It’s a beautiful house,” Travis said. His accent was softened along with his tone.
“Thank you,” I said with smile. It is a beautiful house. The homestead itself was built in the nineteen twenties, had wooden floors and nine-foot ceilings. “It’s old and takes a lot of upkeep these days, but she’s been well looked after.”
“They don’t make big old houses like these anymore,” he said. “Even back home, old traditional ranch houses are few and far between.”
“Where exactly is back home?” I asked. “Texas, yeah?”
Travis put his duffel bag on the bed. “Yes, sir. Johnson City is just west of Austin. My family has a ranch there.”
“Please don’t call me sir.”
“Sorry. It’s a habit my momma drilled into me.”
“It’s okay,” I said reassuringly. “I just look for my father when I hear that word.”
Travis nodded but looked down to his luggage on the bed. He was a few inches taller than my five foot ten, and a fairly decent build, wore a checkered shirt with sleeves rolled to his elbows, American jeans and fancy cowboy boots. But what I noticed most was when he looked downward like that I could see the outline of the back of his neck. It was tanned, muscular with short, clipped hair that looked as though it’d be real soft to touch…
“I’m sorry,” he said, snapping me out my wayward thoughts. “I guess I was expecting the boss to be a lot older…”
I studied him for a long moment. “Is that a problem?”
His head shot up and his eyes were wide. “Oh no, not at all,” he said quickly. “It’s just my father mentioned a man named Charles was about his age, not mine…”
“Charles was my father,” I told him. “And his father before that and probably the one before that.”
He nodded and looked back down to his belongings on the bed. “Mine is a family name too.”
He was obviously a little uncomfortable with my being there, so I figured I’d leave him be and let him settle in. I walked to the door and said, “I’ll leave you to it. Bathroom is the door at the end of the hall to your left. My room’s the first door near the foyer on your right.” I wasn’t exactly sure why I said that, so I added, “If you need anything, that is. And George and Ma live in this house too, in the bedroom off the back sunroom, but they’re quiet as mice. You won’t hear a peep from them until breakfast time.”
Travis smiled at me then. “Thanks.”
“I guess I should tell you the rules of the house,” I said, figuring it was probably best to get all the formalities out of the way.
“Yep, rules. Breakfast is at six on the dot. If we’re in and around the yard, lunch is twelve noon. If we’re out during the day, Ma will usually pack us some lunch or drive something out to us or we’ll pack it and take it with us. Dinner is six sharp—” I looked at my watch. “—which is in twenty minutes, so I’d better let you freshen up. Oh, and just a reminder that Sutton Station is dry; there is no alcohol here. The crew of workers usually head to the Alice every second weekend to let loose, but there’s no drinking here.”
“Alice Springs,” I explained. “Locals call it the Alice. Dunno why.”
Travis nodded again, almost smiling. “Okay.”
“And the boys’ll probably wanna give you a hard time, you know, as the greenhorn, but they won’t mean anything by it,” I said with a smile. “They’re a good bunch. But you’ll be with me to start off with so they won’t be game to try nothing.”
“Thanks,” he said with half a smile.
“Like I said, you’ll meet them at dinner,” I told him. “We eat in the main house. Most big stations will have different quarters for workers to eat, but there’s only six full-time staff…well,” I corrected, “seven including you, so we just use this house. And they’re all scared of Ma. She has rules at the table and they respect them.”
I grinned at him. “Be on time, be clean, be grateful. Wear a shirt and shoes, and never wear your hat at the table.”
Travis chuckled, a deep throaty sound. “Sounds just like my momma.”
I found myself smiling back at him. “Could she throw a rolling pin at your head?”
“From about thirty yards,” Travis said with a grin. “But when you make it out of the kitchen without bein’ caught, you know the worst part?”
We both spoke at the same time. “You gotta come home sometime.”
We both laughed, and he seemed a lot more comfortable when I left him to unpack. I cleaned up first, washed my hands and face and even brushed my hair, then went back to the kitchen. I kissed Ma on the cheek so she’d forgive me for stealing a scone earlier and grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge.
“He seems like a real nice fella,” Ma said.
I shrugged. “He’s from a farm back home, so who knows…” I took a mouthful of water. “I hope he does.”
Ma smiled into the pot on the stove. “He’s kinda cute.”
“Ma,” I warned. “Please don’t.”
“Just stating a fact, sweetheart,” she said. Then she held out her hand. “Pass me the pepper.”
And the conversation on how cute Travis was, was thankfully over. I had to work with the man for the next four weeks. He was a guest in my house, and I was responsible for his welfare. The last thing I needed was to start thinking of him in that way.
Ten minutes later, he walked into the kitchen, showered, looking all bright-eyed and fresh, dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt, smelling all clean and of a deodorant I didn’t recognize. I turned back to the sink, trying to ignore thoughts that weren’t rightfully pure.