Life for Charlie Sutton has never been better, or busier. With Travis now a permanent fixture of Sutton Station, a permanent fixture at Charlie’s side, Charlie’s convinced he couldn’t do anything on his ever-growing to-do list without him.
He can run a multimillion dollar cattle business, finish his degree, try and further the local beef industry, deal with staff issues, Ma’s failing health, and an attention-demanding wombat. He can even deal with an unexpected visitor and some shattering news.
He can deal with it all, as long as he has Travis.
But what happens when he doesn’t?
Red Dirt Heart 3 is the story of Charlie Sutton finally realising he can be the man Travis Craig deserves, even if he doesn’t have Travis. It’s a story of love, family, holding on, letting go and coming home.
Nugget is the little wombat that Travis brought home with him at the very end of RDH2, and he plays a very important role in RDH3. It’s Charlie who cares for him, and who Nugget has decided in the only human allowed to feed him. He’s quite possibly the cutest, most adorable character I’ve ever written…
Where Travis changed seats and changed Sutton Station.
We boarded the plane at Darwin, fully expecting the flight back to Alice Springs to be a non-event. People were still boarding when Travis decided he wanted to sit by the window, and then he didn’t, then he did, then he didn’t. And then he did.
“Too bad,” I said, refusing to move seats again. “I pity the person you sat next to for twenty-something hours when you flew to Australia.”
“You really wouldn’t,” he said. He leaned in real close. “We ended up joining the mile-high club.”
My eyes shot to his, and I glared. Instantly jealousy, anger and hurt flared in my belly.
Travis threw back his head and laughed, making a few of the other people still boarding the plane look at us. “Just kidding. I totally didn’t.”
“I hate you.”
He snorted. “I like making you jealous. You’re too easy,” he said, smiling. He could tell I was still a bit peeved by his comment. “Honestly, it was some woman with two kids who, if they weren’t yellin’, they were crying.”
“Serves you right.”
He laughed again. “You know, you were so much more relaxed at Kakadu,” he said. He leaned in and spoke quietly, “And I just happen to know how to really relax you, so if you want to head to the bathroom first, I’ll follow.”
I coughed as some poor bastard took his seat next to Travis. I wasn’t particularly hiding my sexuality anymore, but I wasn’t up for lewd comments in front of the unsuspecting public either. I gave him a behave-yourself glare, and as Travis struck up conversation with the guy next to him, I bid that man a silent good luck, put my earphones on and closed my eyes.
I’d barely shut my eyes for ten minutes before Travis tapped my leg.
I blinked, realising we were now up in the air. I pulled off the headphones. “What?”
“Swap seats,” he urged, standing up.
I looked at the guy who was sitting on the other side, and without time to wonder what had happened, I slid over—with some degree of difficulty given the tight space and Travis standing in front of me. Travis didn’t look pissed off or even worried, so I figured the guy now next to me was harmless. I gave the man a nod and indicated Travis. “Did he say something inappropriate?”
He was mid-thirties with short brown hair that was kinda greyed at his temples. He had a thick-set build, and the stereotype that he played rugby was typified by his been-broken nose. He laughed. “No. Not at all.”
“Good,” I answered flatly. “I wasn’t gonna apologise, I just could have sympathised with you, that’s all.”
Travis whacked my arm with the back of his hand. He leaned forward so he could include all three of us in conversation. “Charlie, I wanted to introduce you,” Trav said with a would-you-shut-up look in his eye. “Blake Burgess, this is Charlie Sutton.”
The name meant nothing to me, but Blake’s eyebrow flicked. “Charlie Sutton? As in Sutton Station?”
“The one and only,” I said, wondering who the hell this guy was and how he’d heard of me. I gave a quick glance to Travis to get him to explain.
“Blake here was just telling me what he does for a living,” Travis said. “Thought you two might like to chat.”
I was confused, and when I turned back to Blake, he was smiling at me. “I’m a buyer for Woolworth’s. More specifically, I source out beef suppliers for supermarkets across the country.”
I blinked. Slowly. Twice. Like an idiot. Travis laughed quietly beside me and mumbled something that sounded like “thank you Travis” before putting on headphones and before I composed myself to actually speak to this guy.
But speak we did. For the next hour and a half—the remainder of our flight—we talked beef: prices, stock rates, ratios, buying, selling, exporting, breeding. For a suit-wearing guy, he knew his stuff. He probably thought that for an outback dirt junkie, I did okay too.
As we were landing, Blake said, “Your friend was telling me you’ve just been to Kakadu.”
I nodded. “Yep.”
“How was that?”
“Wet,” I answered. “And green.”
Travis, who I had thought was asleep, chuckled. “Charlie thinks anything that’s not red desert sand is abnormal.” Trav sat up straight, took the earphones off and straightened out his long legs.
I shrugged. It was kind of true. We’d been gone a week. A whole week! And as incredible as the holiday with Travis was, I was keen to get home.
“I’d love to see it,” Blake said.
“Kakadu?” I asked. “It’s beautiful,” I agreed. “If wet and green is your thing.”
Blake laughed. “No, I meant your farm.”
The plane had taxied in and people started to move, collecting bags from overhead lockers, and our conversation kind of ended with that. We disembarked and headed toward the luggage conveyor belt.
“Thanks for the company,” I told Blake as I shook his hand. “It was good to talk to someone who appreciates what we do.”
He collected his bag, but seemed to hesitate before leaving, like he was making a decision in his head. He turned back to me. “Look, Charlie, I was serious when I said I wanted to see your place,” he said. “In an official capacity. I’d like to oversee what you do out there. I’ve spoken to enough farmers in my time to know who’s legit or not, and I’ve seen enough stock rate figures to know your name when I hear it.”
“Oh.” Shit. Shit. Shit. This was kind of a very big deal. His offer threw me for a six. “Oh, um…”
He smiled. “If you’re interested, that is. I’ll need to check my schedule, and I’ll let you know when I can fit you in. I hadn’t planned on meeting you, and I’m only here for two days, so it’s real short notice. But I’ll need to see some sales-to-weight reports and I’ll require your vet to be onsite. Can you arrange that?”
“Sure.” I swallowed down my excitement and gave him a nod. “Sounds good.”
We swapped phone numbers and shook hands, and when he walked away, Travis and I stood there for a long while in complete silence.
“Holy shit,” I whispered.
Travis laughed. “Thought you might like to talk to him.”
That made me laugh. “I can’t believe you did that.” I looked at him, still not quite believing what just happened. “Travis, this could be kinda important for us.”
“I know,” he said like I was stupid. “That’s why I swapped seats.”
“I owe you something big.”
“Big as in eight inches?” he asked. “Or big as in a pizza oven or a week in Kakadu?”
Laughing, I pushed him to the luggage conveyor belt. Ours were the only two bags left. When I looked over to the reception area, George was there watching us, smiling and shaking his head.
Man, it felt good to be home.
I really wanted people to see that Charlie Sutton had grown. Yes, he needs Travis in his life, but on the flip side of that, he needed to know he could stand on his own two feet if he had to. I had worried that Charlie’s dependence on Travis, his mindset of “I couldn’t do anything without him, I wouldn’t have any of this without him” really wasn’t healthy.
Of course, we all knew Charlie was capable. It was Charlie who doubted himself.
A family crisis back in Texas sends Travis stateside, and both boys have to stand on their own for a while. Naturally, Charlie believes Travis won’t come back – not a reflection on Travis – but rather a reflection of Charlie thinking he’s not worth coming back for.
But, survive, they do. And in this journey – the chapter’s aptly titled “Longing in the Loneliness” and “Strength in the Solitude” – show that Charlie, although heartbroken, can get on with life just fine. And maybe it’s Travis who struggles with the absence.