Riding the Track
Kara Ripley © 2018
All Rights Reserved
A week traipsing around the ass-end of Australia was not my idea of a good time. As I exited the airplane, all I could think was: what the fuck am I doing here? Rather than at home in Sacramento, curled up with my sociopathic cat on my favorite sofa, drinking away my sorrows with my favorite wine, and obsessively rewatching my favorite episodes of Gilmore Girls. Instead, I was on my own—yes, traveling alone is a thing people do—waiting to be picked up by a tour guide who would probably smile too broadly, laugh too loudly, and abbreviate every other word to the point where I wouldn’t be able to understand a damn thing.
Regardless, it was still worth taking the trip, because it meant Austin (otherwise known as my idiot ex-boyfriend) had to stay home. Standing in line, another international zombie waiting to get my passport stamped, the thought made me smile.
“What brings you to the land down under?” The customs officer’s words might’ve suggested he was interested, but his monotone made it obvious he’d already asked at least fifty other people the same thing. But he was making an effort. I hadn’t realized how utterly terrifying the officials were in the airports back home. Contrast was sobering.
“Here for one of those outdoor adventure vacations,” I told him. I left out the part about taking the trip as a way to say “screw you” to my moronic, cheating ex-boyfriend, the one who’d actually wanted to go to South Australia. “It’s a cattle drive.” My voice was scratchy, my throat dry. I hadn’t actually spoken to anybody for hours. I didn’t have reason for complaint, though, since I managed to get an empty seat next to me and the flight attendant didn’t push too hard for conversation.
“Wonderful. Well—” He returned my passport. “—have a fantastic time, Clara Adler.” It always sounded strange to me when a stranger used my full name. I tucked the passport into my back pocket and nodded politely before moving on.
A few hours and two way-too-strong cappuccinos later, I was on yet another flight. This time, though, a small crowd of us were crammed into the world’s smallest cabin. The guy in the window seat next to me had serious need of some mouthwash or a mint. I had to keep my face turned away from him to avoid breathing in his noxious cigarette breath. It was a shame because, from what I saw through the window across the aisle, the landscape became increasingly orange as we put more distance between us and the capital city. It wasn’t quite the same color as the Nevada desert I’d visited with my parents. Nor did it seem as stagnant. Even with brief glances, the scorched land below us asserted itself as a living entity—a bear reaching the end of its hibernation period. Still and seemingly peaceful, yet hungry.
From the sky, the low-lying rectangular building in Coober Pedy reminded me of a roller-skating rink more than an airport, as though I could reach through the window and pick the whole thing up. When they finally opened the hatch and let us out, I wanted to guzzle the fresh air like a dehydrated alcoholic with their lips wrapped around a beer tap. I hadn’t been all that excited about the whole idea of being outdoors, but after such a suffocating trip, I wondered if there was something to be gained from this whole affair after all.
The tour guide waited on the tarmac, holding a sign that read “Clara, Louise, and Michael. Let’s round ’em up!” I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes. To be fair, she was probably trying to be welcoming. Ordinarily, I might have even appreciated the effort. Reflecting on how hostile I’d been lately made me remember the-idiot-named-Austin again. It irritated me that my loser ex-boyfriend had made me so moody.
The woman holding the sign noticed me staring and waved, lifting up onto her toes, even though there wasn’t anyone between us. Her dark eyes widened beneath a charcoal-colored hat as she smiled at me, gesturing for me to join her. The hat fascinated me. It looked like something a cowboy would wear, except the crown didn’t reach so high, and the brim had a less severe curl than I would have expected. I suddenly remembered mention of them in a magazine I’d skimmed on the flight over. An Akubra.
I took a deep breath to prepare for extended social interaction and walked over. Two others fell into step with me. Louise and Michael?
“Welcome to Oz!” The shine of the sign-holder’s white teeth was intensified by the dark tones of her face. “I’m guessing you two are Louise and Michael,” she said, offering a handshake.
“You guess right! You maybe ought to be a fortune-teller,” Louise replied enthusiastically, her Southern accent asserting itself. It was clear that Louise was going to get under my skin for the next few days. She was too cheerful. It just wasn’t natural to be that excited to meet new people.
“G’day. Good to meet ya,” the Australian replied. “My name’s Evelyn. But you can call me Evie, yeah?” I’d always assumed films and television programs exaggerated the Aussie accent and vernacular. If the woman was any indication, the stereotypes were more than fair. My guess, though, was that she probably had to speak that way to appease the tourists. “That leaves Clara,” she said as she held out her hand. Her grip was strong as she gave my arm one quick up-and-down before releasing it. I wanted to rub the back of my hand like a child but decided it probably wasn’t a good idea to offend the one who’d be guiding us. I needed another coffee. Or maybe a cider. Was the early afternoon a reasonable time to start drinking in Australia?
“Right.” Evie clapped her hands together. “You lot are the last ones to arrive. A few hours and we’ll be at base camp. You can get some good bush tucker, have a few drinks, enjoy a few songs, meet your horses, and get a solid night’s sleep before the real adventure starts.”
Horses. Fuck. I was so busy avoiding Mr. Stink-Mouth on the plane that I’d forgotten the horses, even though it was one of the main reasons Austin had wanted to come on this vacation. The fifteen hours of travel before that probably hadn’t helped my memory either.
Five days wandering through the South Australian outback. Sure, I could handle that. Probably. But on a horse? Jesus H Christ. I hadn’t been atop a horse since the seventh grade. Summer camp. A ripped seam in my jeans. Jonas Egan laughing at me from his saddle. God, Jonas was such an asshole. I imagined him as an adult, living in some overcrowded apartment building with his eight illegitimate children and underage girlfriend, still scratching his balls when he thought no one was watching.
I was going to have to actually ride a horse. For five days. Shit. My crotch and thighs were practically aching already. Fuck you and your cowboy obsession, Austin. If I kept my bad track record up, I was going to need an asshole display cabinet for my growing collection.
As the four of us walked through the small building toward the baggage claim, I couldn’t help but notice the jeans Evelyn—Evie the Drover—was wearing. Dark blue. Bootleg. Tight. Did my eyes just linger on her butt? I had to admit, it was a damned impressive butt. I wanted to ask her if she had a regular routine of squats or if the muscle tone came from all the riding. Either way, I didn’t think too much of my little rear-end inspection at the time. It’s not as though it was the first time I’d checked out a woman, and there wasn’t anything else to see at the Coober Pedy airport.
The car was a well-traveled pickup truck, the kind with two rows of seats. It was probably white, but under all the orange dust, it was difficult to be sure.
“I’ll take that for ya,” Evie said as she made for my duffel bag. Her fingers grazed against mine as she wrapped her hand around the handle and gently pulled it out of my grip. Though we both had dark hair and eyes, my skin was pale against hers, almost sickly.
“Thanks.” I redirected my gaze to a rather exciting rock a few inches away from the rear tire. It was the safer option, given my brain seemed to want me to inspect the front of Evie the drover in much the same way I had the back.