Central to Nowhere, page 1
Central to Nowhere
Central to Nowhere
© D.J. Blackmore, 2019
Published by Rhiza Connect, 2019
An imprint of Rhiza Press
PO Box 1519,
Capalaba QLD 4159
Cover design by Rhiza Press
Layout by Rhiza Press
Print ISBN: 978-1-925563-64-1
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-925563-73-3
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form by any means without the prior permission of the copyright owner. Enquiries should be made to the publisher.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Central to Nowhere
For Aurora; little northern light.
And for everyone who has had a
dream gone awry only to realise that
brightness always follows after night.
Adam O’Rourke knew all there was to know about horseflesh. From pastern to forelock, gallop to trot. He’d been in the saddle before he could walk. If only he knew as much about women as he did about horses.
Adam scratched the stubble on his jaw. Ivy could hardly even mount a horse. The girl he had employed for the summer as a jillaroo knew as much concerning the equine persuasion as he did about performing a pedicure.
She grabbed the reins in hands that trembled like willows lining the creek. Sweat had trickled down her back to leave its damp handprint on her shirt. But he guessed it wasn’t just because of the heat. She was white-knuckled and wide-eyed. Her gaze flickered towards him.
The brim of Adam’s Akubra shaded his eyes from the relentless sun as he took stock of the saddle. It was a brand new western job that had more conchos than a pensioners’ purse had ten-cent pieces.
Ivy said she had bought it in Tamworth. She’d hardly be able to heft it to the tack room, never mind lug it through Rocky airport on her way back to Sydney. A plain old stock saddle from his stable that had settled as many seats as a Keith Urban concert would have been the ticket, but this girl appeared to like the more fancy option.
‘Ivy, you need to sit in the middle of the saddle. You’re way back. Wriggle down a bit.’
The forty-degree heat had cooked him up to boiling point, and this woman wasn’t helping. She was wasting his time. She’d never make a jillaroo. She’d be lucky to make it back home with all her diamantes intact. He wiped the sweat from his brow and pushed his hat back on the crown of his head.
He made an ascending motion with his hand. ‘Now, put your feet in the stirrups and stand up.’ Ivy just looked at him. He gestured to her seat. She craned back to check her jeans as though she might have sat on something unpleasant by mistake. Adam’s sigh was a whistle through clenched teeth.
‘What did you say?’ She was blushing to the roots of her hair. She obviously had no idea what he expected her to do. Ivy clung to the horse now like a climbing vine wrapped itself around a fence.
He had been a fool, looking at her profile picture with more interest than he had in assessing her capability to work. Impatience was rearing its head.
‘Put your feet in the oxbows and stand up to check the length of the stirrup leathers.’ She stood up as requested, straddled so wide in the enormous saddle that her petite legs could barely cover the distance. Who in the world had measured this saddle for her anyway? Obviously it hadn’t been the staff at the saddlery—unless some bumbling bloke behind the counter had been distracted by Ivy’s pretty face too.
‘You’ve got to hold the reins.’
He caught a belligerent look.
Her frustration and lack of knowledge were getting the better of her. And where had she got the ridiculous notion to work with cattle? Adam sighed and ran a hand over his face.
Standing upright in the saddle, Ivy leaned over the neck of the horse. She put a hand out and grabbed at the dangling reins. Adam stepped forward to warn her just as the mare shook herself with irritation at the flies. Ivy lost her balance and pitched headlong into red dust. She sprawled and lifted her face to look right at the toes of his boots.
Her gaze traveled from his Ariats upwards and met his eyes. She was dusted in red ochre.
‘You spooked my horse!’
Adam shook his head. ‘I came over to grab the reins.’ He looked to the horizon as if for answers, and then back to the disheveled girl at his feet. He should have asked if she was all right. Instead he heard himself posing a question.
‘You’ve never even been on a horse before, have you?’
Ivy flushed, swished a pale mane of hair off her shoulder and made to stand up. He put out a helping hand, which she pointedly ignored.
Adam folded his arms and set his feet a little more squarely on his land.
‘Most people start with pony club.’ He supposed he came across as rude, but he hadn’t advertised for someone with no experience.
Ivy pressed her lips together and he wondered whether she was tempted to pull him back with some nasty insult. She put hands on hips with attitude that Adam didn’t trust. He found himself backtracking.
‘I can see that you are keen, but I asked for a help, not a hindrance. I thought I’d worded the advertisement pretty clearly. I wanted experience. If you want to cut your losses, it’s probably not a bad idea at this stage.’
‘I’ll think about it.’
Obviously she wasn’t getting the message. He needed to make it clearer.
‘I’m sorry, but I run a business, not a pony club.’ He almost wished he hadn’t said that.
‘And I’m not here to be insulted.’ She turned away.
‘Horses and cattle are powerful animals. Sometimes they do stupid things. It’s too easy to get hurt when you don’t know what you’re doing.’
It was nothing but the truth. Could he just push her through the gates and send her home? Adam shook his head. He’d had enough of this.
She tended to an impossibly long, fake-looking fingernail with care. When she did give him her attention, she hid her hands behind her back. But long fingernails or clipped, she wasn’t right for the station.
Perhaps she read his thoughts. ‘I made quite an effort to come and work here.’
He threw up his hands. ‘I thought you knew horses!’
‘I do. I’ve had lessons.’
‘What, when you were five?’
‘Are all you country blokes bad-mannered?’
Adam tried to hide his frustration and grimaced toward the heat haze on the horizon.
There was a livid spot of colour on either cheek. He guessed truth hurt. Adam watched her turn to walk away from him without another word. He noticed too, the appealing swagger in her step. It was just bravado, and he wanted nothing to do with it.
A bell sounded from the big house and Adam sighed in relief. She turned back with a questioning expression.
‘Time for a break.’
Adam pulled up short, took a steadying breath and went in the direction of the kitchen.
The station was huge. And the house didn’t seem much smaller. Ivy had imagined a
Adam was no cattle king either, just some rough-shod ringer with dirty jeans and bad manners. It was she who had fallen off the horse, not he. It didn’t help that all the other guys knew fencing, mustering and stock work, and that she appeared to be the only female on the whole thousand acres of red dirt and brigalow scrub. Doubtless a retelling of her inglorious fall would have the half dozen men laughing well into the night.
Let them scoff. The boss didn’t look like he shared a joke that often. Ivy would be doing them a favour.
But conscience put spurs in. She hadn’t been entirely truthful when it came to tending livestock and living off the land. He had every right to ask her to leave, and she knew it.
The homestead was a Queenslander. A porch skirted the house right the way around. Part of that verandah was enclosed with lattice and white woodwork, so the burning sun couldn’t find its way in.
Ivy followed Adam to the top of the stairs. The entry was announced by carved white doors. The decorative design seemed at odds with the dust; it was jarringly beautiful in an old-fashioned way. Adam opened the door and disappeared inside, just before it banged shut in Ivy’s face. She stood blinking at the lattice before she pushed it aside and followed. If manners still survived in Central Queensland, they obviously did not live on this station.
Capricorn Station was south of the equator and central to nowhere. Perhaps that would have been a better name for it. There was nothing for miles. Not a single store that she could see in the vague, vast distance. Loneliness came in a wave of warmth from the plains.
Ivy had fallen asleep on the airplane that had been suspiciously like a Lego model, and had woken up to turbulence. She was windblown and wide-eyed as she stepped out of the aircraft, awestruck by the vast bowl of blue above her head. It seemed to spread forever. Paddocks of droopy-eared cows and open-cut coal mines stretched from here to civilisation. Wherever that happened to be, she shrugged.
High visibility workwear flowed through the terminal in a never-ending stream; coal miners who visited their homes on the ‘Sunny Coast’ one week, only to live a grimy bachelor working week the next. They carved tonnes of coal for the country’s commerce by day and phoned home each night. The guy beside her on the cramped aircraft had fallen to snoring after he gave her the run down, giving Ivy time to gaze through the airplane window to the ground below.
A khaki ribbon of water snaked through the thirsty land. Around its banks the thin rim of grass was bright but the trees that scattered the landscape were gnarled and looked dry as driftwood, aching for rain.
Ivy entered the homestead’s dining area behind Adam and felt even less at ease with these dusty cowboys in stockmen’s hats than she had been in the anthill airport terminus.
Every man at the long table put down their Iced VoVo biscuits and stared at Ivy. She straightened her spine and went to take an empty chair. She didn’t manage nonchalance, but she tried. Then she waited for the introduction to the team.
It didn’t come.
Ivy turned to Adam, gesturing to the men whose names she didn’t know, in an unspoken question.
‘Aren’t you going to tell them who I am?’ Her face flamed with indignation, although fear galloped in her chest.
He appeared to weigh it up in his mind, then finally addressing the men, he raised his voice. But the introduction was begrudging at best.
‘Boys, meet Ivy. She’s not on show—she’s here to work—for now. But however brief her time with us is, treat her with the respect you’d give any bloke on the station. Show her the ropes, but keep your hands to yourself. Got it?’
Adam O’Rourke didn’t toy with niceties, did he? At least the men knew what was expected of them. They nodded in her direction. There were even a couple of indeterminate noises that counted as welcome before they set to their biscuits again.
She barely acknowledged any of the half-hearted hellos, because the notion of her probable very brief stay at the station was repeating itself in her head. This wasn’t how things were meant to pan out. It was meant to be a new start, a new beginning. But it looked like it would end before it had begun.
She realised Adam was talking. She looked back, giving him her attention and noticed the other men were all heading back out to work, leaving her alone with the boss.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.’
‘I said, we’re going to go mustering soon. There are no amenities. There’s nothing in the way of comfort, just rounding up the cattle to finish them in greener paddocks before we send them off to the cattle yards.’
‘You’re trying to scare me away.’
‘Not at all, because if I decide you’re not right for the station, I’ll just come right out with it.’
Yeah, I’m sure you will.
I’m just being honest. Let’s face it, you weren’t exactly upfront when you filled out the application. What did you think you came here to do?’
‘It’s not attempting the work I’m afraid of, it’s the way you’re rapping it out. You make it sound like boot camp with the trainer from hell. Last time I checked, a jillaroo was kind of like an apprentice, not a professional.’
‘That’s true, but you’ll remember that I was specific in what I expected you could do. You lied, didn’t you? So I don’t think you checked anything much at all. Otherwise you’d recollect that riding experience is essential.’
Ivy chewed over the unsavoury truth. Unpalatable, just like the cattleman across from her. Ivy’s silence confirmed his accusation, if not the hot flare that spread over her face. Ivy had imagined coffee and baked beans under the black blanket of sky when they put down for the night—apparently that was what cowboys did—but clinging to the back of some unwilling stock horse ready to act up at her every incompetent move was more likely. But it wasn’t the idea of grubby hands, broken nails and a sore backside at day’s end that pricked the bubble of her hope. It was the way that reality came from a hard-mouthed man who was also her boss.
‘Now, we only go into town once a month,’ Adam directed at Ivy. ‘We’re too busy, and it’s too far.’
Ivy swallowed. A protracted season in the dust, in the company of cows, flies, Adam O’Rourke and thousands of acres, felt strangely claustrophobic.
He was probably always finding himself short of workers if his lack of charisma was anything to go by. Maybe the real reason he had accepted her job application was because his temperament was known far and wide by everyone, and no one else had been willing to step over the cattle grid into this man’s domain. That was probably garbage, but it felt better than the truth. But his being short on charm had nothing to do with her being here. It wouldn’t stop her from putting the past behind her.
You can do this.
Ivy’s anxious heart thumped in time with her racing mind. The four-footed redhead had been bigger than Ivy anticipated, and the fall had shaken her more than a little. It had also bruised her ego, if not her backside. But she wasn’t about to let this cow-cocky see her scared.
Adam may have discovered that she was an utter novice when it came to mounting and dismounting a horse, but he would also learn that she was set on achieving what she had come here to do.
Ivy had had the idea of being a horsewoman ever since she’d been a kid. The riding instructor had said she was a natural-born talent. Back then she’d felt she could become anything. But that was before Daddy left, and pony club ended. And everything else that was good seemed to end as well.
Maybe that’s why the quip about pony club had really stung.
Still, she was here now—too late to back out. Her ambition to wander the Australian bush, like the stockmen along the cattle route with whip and swag, suddenly loomed with hooves and stood at seventeen hands.
Ivy dipped her gaze to hide her heated cheeks. What ha
The strong coffee was easier to swallow than the bare facts. She was here under false pretence. Ivy was no liar. But she had let herself down. She couldn’t bear to look Adam in the eyes.
Ivy blinked back to the present. ‘You want me to do what?’
Adam stared at her. ‘Help milk the cows. There are two we’re milking at the moment.’
Reality hit Ivy with a hoof in the chest. ‘This is an Australia I thought died out before my grandma’s time.’
Adam’s brow furrowed as if he hadn’t a clue what she was talking about.
‘It’s a bit of a surprise—culture shock even,’ she finished lamely.
‘Makes you wonder how people have managed to make milk all this time, doesn’t it?’
He was squinting. Was he aiming for funny and falling short? Were they even speaking the same language? Seemed they were having a tough job trying to understand each other. Sydney to CQ was obviously further than she had previously thought.
‘I didn’t think this was a dairy farm.’
Now he gave her the look she knew was reserved just for her.
‘I mean, aren’t these beef cattle?’
His eyes widened as though pleasantly surprised. ‘Strictly, yes they are.’ Then he went and spoiled it. ‘I’m glad that you know something.’
Was that the insult it seemed to be? Ivy took a deep breath and tried again.
‘They’ve got all that loose skin to help them withstand the heat.’
‘Well, least I know you can read.’
‘They’re Jerseys by the way-–the cows I want you to milk. Strictly for milk production, which I’m sure you already know.’
Ivy ground her teeth. She had no rebound.
Outback: it meant backward. She was getting that now.
‘You want me to milk your cows? I thought I came here to ride.’