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By Jack Richards
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Jack Richards
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA PAIR OF WESTERN GREY kangaroos lazily feed on clumps of hummock grass under the spectacular cloud formations that frame the rising sun. In the distance a ranch house and its outbuildings provide the only trace of civilization in the vast expanse of Australian Outback.
Inside the ranch house, Sharon Bradbury, dressed in blue jeans, a soft, cotton shirt, and Ugg boots, sits at her kitchen table sipping coffee. Her thick, shiny hair is pulled back from her face and is tied at the nape of her neck. Devoid of makeup, her tanned face reveals the presence of stress, causing her to take on the appearance of her favorite flower, a Cooktown Orchid, whose luster shrivels in the harsh rays of the Australian afternoon sun.
A ring on the mahogany tabletop made by her coffee cup grabs her attention. She quickly returns the cup to its proper resting place in a saucer before she attempts to rub away the whitish stain. As she does so, her fingertips discover a scratch in the table's surface, and the vigorous rub slowly changes to a gentle caress as thoughts of a happier time fill her consciousness. Years earlier, during the unpacking of the crates full of their belongings in their new kitchen, George, her husband, unable to contain his excitement, had taken her hand and led her outside to the spot where the table had remained hidden under a bed sheet since its delivery that morning.
Built by a well-known artisan in 1812 for George's great-great-grandfather, the prized table had been passed down from generation to generation before it was retired to a location in the corner of an old shed, where it remained under a canvas tarp for better than twenty years. Upon its discovery during one of George's vigorous throwaway campaigns, it instantly occurred to him that it would make the perfect gift for his wife as they prepared to occupy their new home. He immediately sought and found an old school chum who had mastered the art of furniture renovation. In a short time he had it looking almost better than it did the day it was built.
A smile warms Sharon's face as she remembers her surprise, excitement, and then wave of love for her husband. She pictures their struggle to find a way to squeeze the table through the kitchen door's opening, leading to a severe case of the giggles. Their attempts to push, pull, twist, turn, or lift, produced more frustrated amusement than success. Finally, their goal achieved, the two raised their arms in triumph before they hugged and kissed. Their joyous display of affection quickly ripened into a full-blown passion, and the table served as the most convenient location for its ultimate expression.
As the two fumbled awkwardly to remove the other's clothing, Sharon unbuckled George's tool belt, and it flopped over on to the table's surface. George quickly attempted to push it off the table and on to the floor. During the belt's trip, the hammer's claw dug into the smooth surface creating a horrifying sound. The two cringed as they imagined the damage done.
The trace of a smile gradually disappears, and her finger again follows the path of the scratch on the table. This time a grim image appears in her mind's eye: George's lifeless body, covered by a sheet, resting on the bare table. Her head lowers and her eyes close.
The picture, however, remains.
In an attempt to change the image, she decides to change her location. She stands and walks to the sink filled with last night's dirty dishes. On the counter rests an open 2024 calendar with the 21st circled in red. She closes it and tosses it in the direction of the living room.
Seeking a diversion, she focuses on something outside. Her look instantly softens when she sees the two boys atop horses too large for them as they herd cattle into a corral next to a weathered, grey barn. "Buns," the family's yellow Labrador Retriever, eagerly searches for a way to participate, darting in and out of the corral, ready to chase the gooey tennis ball when one of the boys takes the time to toss it. A smile gradually widens as Sharon proudly watches them direct the last steer into the enclosure, hop off their horses, and push the gate closed.
She looks at her watch, empties her cup into the sink, turns, and walks toward the living room. Listening all the while to the hollering boys and the lowing cows outside, she scans the photo-covered walls. She focuses on a recent family portrait and moves closer to examine it carefully. She studies the two boys, each with an arm around his brother's shoulder, doing their best to contain an impish exuberance, then the two happy adults who flank them on both sides. Finally, she reaches out and ever so delicately touches the man in the photo.
Abruptly, angrily, she removes the photo along with the others next to it. She hurries to the open packing box in the middle of the room and searches for a secure resting place for them. The task more than overwhelms her, so she searches the room hoping to find a less painful duty. Finding no such option, she returns to the kitchen and goes to the window to watch the boys while she regains her composure. Then she moves through the door leading to the porch.
At the barn the two boys, Eric and Brock, are busy removing their saddles. The roll of the genetic dice for the Bradbury boys has resulted in an interesting mixture of traits from both their parents in appearance and temperament. Twelve year-old Eric, the spitting image of his father, has clearly inherited an almost identical set of behavioral characteristics from his mother. Independent, athletic, adventurous, stubborn, aggressive, boisterous are but a few descriptive terms that have been used to describe both Sharon and Eric. On the other hand, eight-year-old Brock appears to be a carbon copy of Sharon in looks, but like his father is reserved, single-minded, sensitive, and highly intelligent.
Eric is the first to see Sharon coming toward them. With a big grin on his face, he waves. "Mom! We got eight!"
Brock, anxious to be included, shouts, "Eight, Mom! Eight!"
"Terrific. You guys are great."
"It was fun. And Brock only fell off once."
"I did not! The saddle came off."
"Who put it on, drango brain?"
"You're the one who showed me how!"
Sharon to the rescue: "Of course, Eric, you've never fallen off. Right?"
"Not that I can remember," says Eric.
"Oh, yeah? What about ..." Brock's defense crumbles as he intercepts the smile that passes between Sharon and Eric. He quickly joins the playful banter. "At least I didn't fall out of bed."
"The slat broke!" Suddenly a smile lights up Eric's face. "Okay, wise guy, we're even." He grabs the brim of Brock's hat and pulls it down over his face.
Everyone laughs. Sharon moves to help them stow the gear, but the boys wave her off. She steps back, folds her arms, and watches, pleased.
"You two left so early I didn't even hear you. Are you hungry?"
Both boys respond in unison. "Starved!"
"I've got hotcakes and eggs. And you both still have some packing to do. Come in as soon as you can."
"But Charley's coming," says Brock.
"Not till later," responds Sharon.
Eric offers, "Want me to take care of it?"
"You don't have to. He'll look out for us." Before moving, Sharon turns and looks back at her "perfect" house. A deep sigh precedes the unfolding of her arms.
Eric is the first to give voice to his thoughts as the boys exchange worried looks. "I wish we didn't have to go."
Sharon offers an understanding smile. "Me, too."
With a tinge of anger in his voice, Brock questions Sharon. "Then why are we goin'?"
Sharon hesitates as she searches for an answer that will make sense to a young mind. As she does so, she gently strokes his cheek. "Without your father it's just too much. We could never do everything that has to be done."
"Eric and I can take care of things. And there's Charley. We can-"
"I know how you feel, sweetheart, but I don't think any of us really understand just how much your dad had to do to ... make everything work."
Continuing on his stubborn course, Brock announces, "I do!"
"Even if you could do it all, you two still have school," explains Sharon.
Brock gives a dirt clod a kick as he mutters to himself, "Crap."
"Do we have to sell everything-even the horses?" asks Eric.
"I'm afraid so, honey."
"Buns is goin', ain't he?" asks Brock.
"Isn't he," corrects Sharon.
"Okay. He is goin'!"
"I think so. I'll have to make arrangements."
"If Buns isn't goin', I'm not goin'!"
"Oh, Brock, you know I'll do what I can. But maybe he'd be better off here. It's his home."
"It's my home, too, and I gotta go."
Eric puts his hand on Brock's shoulder and turns him away. He quietly warns, "Not now, Brock. Back off."
Huddling into herself, Sharon heads back toward the house with Buns trailing close behind. When she reaches the steps, she stops and regards the house one last time. After a long moment, she quickly mounts the steps and disappears.
Inside, she picks up the coffee pot and fills her cup. With his tail wagging, Buns watches her every move and is rewarded when she lifts a piece of meat from a plate on the counter. She holds it between her thumb and index finger just above his eager eyes before she gives permission with an "okay." In an instant the morsel disappears, gulped down intact, with the hope that more would follow. His tongue remains ready for that possibility.
Sharon smiles as she scratches his head. "Oh, Buns, do you ever even taste anything I give you? What are we going to do with you?"
Buns, now almost twelve years old, became a member of the family during their first year in Australia when a neighbor offered the Bradburys the pick of their litter of six when they were ten weeks old. Sharon fell in love with the most active of the lot as he climbed over and around his mates on his way to receive her affection. And then, as he waddled toward George, Sharon's observation, "He's got the cutest buns!" stuck, and "Buns" became his name even before they made their selection and climbed in their pickup to begin their happy homeward journey.
When Eric was almost a year old, he began his first clumsy steps accompanied by Buns, his constant companion. As time passed, his buddy provided protection and stability as he took Eric's forearm in his mouth to lead him about. Though several hoses fell victim to his need to chew, his soft touch with Eric was a source of amazement for all who witnessed it. After Brock was born, Buns happily transferred his protective instinct to him. As the years passed, the three became almost inseparable. Typical of the breed, Buns loved company, was insatiably curious, and loved to explore. With such a large territory to roam and an extremely active family to accompany, he remained relatively trim in spite of his hearty appetite. Recently, however, it pained Sharon to watch his pace slow as a result of a hip dysplasia that she feared might gradually lead to a crippling arthritis.
After the resultant grief related to her personal loss had subsided enough for her to give the necessary attention to both its immediate and long-term effect on the boys, her real problems began. Many sleepless nights were spent searching for answers to a dilemma she had never envisioned in her worst nightmare. Without her beloved companion by her side to provide his stable support, she began to experience a vulnerability she never thought possible.
A host of worries paraded before her in a never ceasing progression each night. How could she ... they manage to work a 10,000-acre ranch, particularly now after a long string of problems had left them financially strapped and facing a possible foreclosure? The obvious answer was to downsize. Sell and make a modest profit so they could stay? But, would merely staying in Australia make a longing for what used to be even more painful for all of them, particularly without George? Should-could the boys be taken from their beloved home without severe consequences?
Would a return to a familiar location she knew as a child-in fact, one of the most beautiful places in the world-be enough to help in their adjustment? And, with the aid of her affluent parents, wouldn't the boys have all the advantages they might not have if they remained? After all, both Sharon and George had talked about and planned for a university education for both boys in the States.
But, it would mean a return to a kind of dependency on parents she loved, of course, yet with whom she never seemed to agree on really important matters. Surely things would be different now, and she'd be afforded respect and independence since she was older and a parent herself. And what about this nutty dormant enhancement thing? An apparent revolutionary system of education that was quite successful by all accounts she'd read. Still, it was different from what she and the boys had become accustomed. Both Eric and Brock loved their teachers and were doing very well academically. New teachers, new classmates, and a new system-certainly a disruption for them and a cause for concern for any relocating child. This new approach was something she knew almost nothing about. She had promised herself a dozen times to do a little more research on its function but never could find the time or the will, especially since her mother had assured her that, as citizens of another country, an exemption would be in the offing. Home schooling was always an option if things didn't go well. So, as was usually the case, she let it slip to the back of her mind with the promise that she'd look into it as soon as possible.
Then today, Brock's question about what would happen to Buns brought another issue to the surface. It was one of the relatively insignificant problems she hoped might somehow solve itself. She had inquired about the procedure she would have to follow to have Buns accompany them and was told it could be arranged, but not on the same flight. Just how it would happen and who would take care of it was just one more thing that had to be addressed, but just not at this moment. Perhaps Charley ...
The only thing about which she was certain was the fact that they had the tickets for a flight leaving a short three days from now. And a thousand things to take care of ...
The sound of footsteps on the porch propelled her into action. She turned on the griddle, stirred the hotcake mix, and was getting the eggs out of the refrigerator as Eric, in the lead, pushed open the door.
"Charley's here," says Eric.
"Is he coming inside?"
"Don't know. Said he had some things to take care of in the barn."
"Okay. Well, breakfast will be ready in a couple of minutes. Just enough time for you to wash up."
Charley, who quickly became their best and most loyal friend, was the first person to welcome them when they arrived at the railway station in Gunnedeh for their "look round." From the first moment she met him to the present, Sharon could detect almost no change in his appearance and behavior. She had always thought of him as "an old saddle," comfortable and well-used, but always there and ready when needed.
After they had tossed their bags into the bed of his pickup, they squeezed into the cab, and Sharon got her first history lesson on her new home. There was, of course, an obligatory trip through town to get a "look-see" at the Dorothea Mackellar Memorial, Breaker Morant Drive, and the Gunnedeh Performing Arts and Cultural Centre-and, most important perhaps, the site of Charley's favorite hangout-a coffee shop where he could always find some of his best mates to discuss world affairs. They then headed toward the ranch house, a trip that took about thirty minutes, enough time for Sharon to learn about "the soils of the Gunnedah Shire, probably the most fertile in all of Australia, good enough to support both winter and summer crops."
During the trip, Charley dazzled them both with his knowledge of the past and with his style of presentation. "You see, the vegetation throughout the shire has gradually changed due mainly to the landholders clearing of the dry scierophyll forests. The nutrient deficient soils of Australia supported nonscierophyllous plants over most of Australia before the arrival of humans. The Aborigines' use of fire through the years led to the widespread occurrence of savanna, or land with grass. This left either scattered trees or an open canopy of trees. These trees were gradually cleared both to remove the competition for water and to improve pasture production, which resulted in what you see all around you ..." His almost encyclopedic knowledge and his manner of speaking seemed incongruous to his actual position as hired hand. In fact, he was far more than that. Just like his father before him, he was their most trusted employee, with the responsibility of supervising all the many and varied enterprises of the Bradbury Ranch.
Excerpted from DORMANT ENHANCEMENT by Jack Richards Copyright © 2010 by Jack Richards. Excerpted by permission.
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