Culver City, in those days--forty-five years ago--was nearly as urban in spirit as it is now. But there were still bits of unoccupied land, including especially the riverbed, where the young people who hung around Jute Smith’s Sunset Stables could ride.
But I didn’t know much about it. I was a boy of 12 then, and my home and Ben’s stables were in Brentwood. The Sunset Stables kids I knew about mostly by hearsay. They were wilder and braver than me--I believed that before I saw them and was sure of it afterward. The girls in particular lived on in my imagination like dream people, though I actually only saw them perform once.
It was at a Junior Rodeo, put on by the kids themselves, in a little ramshackle arena that they themselves had built. Ben and his girlfriend Toni had taken me there, and I was sitting with them in the small, not very full grandstand. Everything, from the fences to the horses, had an air of makeshift. The kids around there weren’t rich. No one sent them to have riding lessons or rented or bought horses for them to ride. Everything they knew, they’d taught each other. And the horses that Nicky and Shannon rode as often as not were borrowed and sometimes were just taken out of a stall and used when the owner wasn’t around. But Nicky and Shannon were only names to me, which I heard again from the grandstand, electrified, out in the air, called out by the announcer, a boy of fifteen or sixteen: “Nicky and Shannon, come to the track, you’re up! Nicky and Shannon!”
The two girls came out on the track, each standing with her feet spread on the moving backs of two unmatched, half-trained horses, holding a whole fistful of reins in one hand and a whip in the other. “Why, they’re no more than children!” Ben said, and it was true. Then they raced, all the way round the track, laughing and calling out to one another. But before they got to the stretch in front of the grandstand, we saw one pair of horses spread apart gradually, spreading the girl’s legs wider and wider, till she dropped between, disappeared, then reappeared rolling in the dust, scrambled to her feet and wiped away a tear with the back of a dirty arm. The other girl finished, jockeyed her horses to a stop, circled them around, and went back toward her friend. Two boys ran out to intercept the pair of loose horses, and within minutes I saw the fallen one--Nicky or Shannon, I couldn’t tell one from the other--laughing again, ruefully; and within a few more minutes, they were racing again, back up on the same horses.
And later in the afternoon, they came out with a smaller, gentler horse that would lope in a straight line without urging and that didn’t mind things or people flapping around near its feet, and one of the girls lay suspended back over the horse’s rump as it ran, with her feet hooked in straps high on the skirts of the saddle, and her hair almost brushing the ground behind the clicking hoofs--while her friend shouted encouragement or advice from the other side of the track.
And those were the kinds of things they would practice along the dry, sandy bed of the river on weekday afternoons, till Nicky was dragged to death there one day, with Shannon watching--just the two girls alone. I sat on a bench out in front of the office at Ben’s stables and heard him and his brother talk about it. Ben used words like “fate” and phrases like “a crying shame,” and his brother said, “They were told, weren’t they?”
“Told what?” Ben said, already irritated.
“Told what to do and not to do. Jute told me they were told a hundred times not to go down on that riverbed by themselves and pull off stunts like that on horses that weren’t trained for it.”
Ben turned his face away from his brother and said to me, or toward me: “That other child, poor thing, I feel almost sorrier for her than for the one that’s gone.”
“Crocodile tears,” Clyde said. “You don’t know either one of them.”
When I got home from the stables, I looked in the past few days’ newspapers till I found a paragraph on an inside page, “Fatal Accident,” which I read and cut out to take to junior high next day as a current event for my social studies class. But nobody paid much attention to it when the teacher read it out loud with the others, and she told me quietly afterward that she preferred national, or better yet international, current events.
Still, all told it was a grand thing to think about, and I liked to imagine the suffering of the “other” girl too, so I could pity her, like Ben.
With the thrill still not worn off--it must have been the same week--I heard Frosty Straight, a friend of Ben’s, say that the other girl had “cried like a waterfall” for two days at home, then gone back to the stables, jumped up on somebody’s horse and started doing handstands. But Jute’s attorney had heard about that and told Jute he’d better put a stop to it.
A week or so more passed. Then one afternoon, it turned out Clyde was right: We didn’t know her, didn’t even know who she was when she came walking around the corner of the barn, a small, trim-looking girl, neat as a pin in her beltless jeans and moccasins and tucked-in white shirt, dark hair pulled back and braided in a single braid. In spite of the adolescent breasts and hips, she was no bigger than I was; I doubt if she weighed ninety pounds, and, catlike, she didn’t seem to take up any more space than the space she actually filled, which was so little it made it easy not to take her much into account. And Ben didn’t at first. But he had a policy of being civil to children, partly because Clyde usually wasn’t.
It was a weekday afternoon, a sunny spring day after school. There was nobody out in front of the office but Ben and me, Ben sitting on one bench with the daybook in his hand, about to look and see what reservations there were, and I on the other bench, just basking in his presence.
Ben got to his feet. “Can I help you, sweetheart?”
“How much does it cost to ride here?” She didn’t come up very close but stood over by the hitch rail, where there were a couple of saddled horses tied.
“A dollar-fifty an hour. There’s the sign, you see.” Ben was tall and all made up of angles. He tilted his head toward the sign on the wall and then again toward her. She walked over in front of us and looked up at the sign.
“Would you like to rent a horse?” he said.
“Not today. I was just curious, if that’s all right.”
“That’s fine,” he said. “Do you live around here close? I didn’t hear a car pull up.”
She shook her head and her brow creased.
He smiled down at her. “Then you must have walked all the way up that hill. Not many people would do that, just to see what the price is.”
I looked at her brown eyes, which looked back at me once, as if I were part of the furniture. They were luminous and clear but not bright and not inviting--you couldn’t see your way into them. She started to turn as if she would walk away, but turned again and said, “Is it all right if I sit on the fence, then, and look at the horses--"
Ben started to answer, and she went on "--or do you charge for that too around here?”
Ben straightened up--she came only to his chest--then lowered his chin. “Honey, what we don’t do is talk like that here. I don’t to you, and you don’t to me. Yes, you may look at the horses.”
“Thank you,” she said, walked over to the fence of the big rent-horse corral, climbed up and sat on the top two-by-six with her back to us, and looked out at the horses. They were mostly standing idle, with their heads low and their hips cocked, only their tails occasionally slashing the air.
Ben was or tried to be amused. “What kind of manners do people raise their children to have nowadays? I don’t know, son, do you?” He said this all in a pretty loud voice.
“No,” I said, looking at her back and hoping she wouldn’t hear me.
He lowered his voice then and said, “What made her take against me that way?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Do you suppose she wanted me to let her ride for free?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I’ll bet she lives right around the corner there, and her folks could buy and sell me twice a day--little slip of a smart-aleck thing! Cute as a bug’s ear, too, isn’t she son? We should have told her ‘Yes, there’s a parking fee, hourly, on the fence.’ ” And he laughed. Yet she’d got under his hide a little.
She sat without moving, and he turned again to his daybook, found he’d left his glasses up at the house, handed the book to me and listened as I began to read out what the reservations were for the next day: “Captain and Lady at nine in the morning for Mr. Gregorius and his daughter. Strick and Sonny at four for a riding lesson for the--"
The office door opened. Clyde stood in the doorway, stretching and yawning. Ben looked up at him, grinned, stretched his right leg out, fished in his watch pocket and held the watch up in front of Clyde, who wouldn’t look at it. “You just woke up in time for your nap,” Ben said.
Clyde moved his head. “Do you see that little girl, standing on the fence?”
We turned. She was walking along the two-inch-wide edge of the top board. “I’ve seen her one time too many,” Ben said, then hollered in his loudest voice, “You want to break your neck ? Get down off of there!”
She walked six or seven feet to the next post, hopped up on the flat top of that and jumped off, hardly stirring the dust when she landed. Without looking back, she started walking down the road.
“She’s seen all she wants of you, too--seems to be leaving.”
“My heart’s broken.”
“Do you know who she is?”
“Who does she think she is, that’s what I want to know.”
“She’s the one you’ve been feeling so sorry for.”
“I’ll give her something to feel sorry for, across my knee, if she--you said what?”
We watched her head bob away out of sight down the hill.
“I say, she’s the one who you said’s worse off than her buddy who’s dead.”
“No? Damn you, I’ll bet you’re right for once.”
“And that’s one bet you’ll win, if you can find anybody to bet with.”
Ben got to his feet, looking off after her and still talking: “I understand now. . . . They ran her off from the other stables, so she came here, and we. . . . Damn me, anyway!” He took off in long strides down the hill.
“If she breaks and runs, I’d like to see him chase her. Oh, well, shall we start doing some of these chores while he’s off playing?”
Clyde and I were up farther on the hill, forking hay into the long manger for the rent-horses that lined up to eat amid much kicking and biting, when we saw Ben coming back and stopped to watch. He wasn’t breathing hard. “Did you catch her?” I said.
He laughed. “I couldn’t have if she didn’t want to be caught, the little vixen.”
“What did you tell her?”
“I didn’t tell her anything, I asked her. We patched it up, though, I believe. She said she might come up tomorrow and ride, if we’re nice to her.”
“Paid for by--?” Clyde said.
“Why, you, brother, and me. After tomorrow, we’ll have to figure something out. Would you like to have her for a helper, son?”
I blushed and said, “What horse will she ride?”
“Well . . . what’s the best horse in the rent-string for somebody who likes to ride upside down? Chico? He’d tolerate that, maybe.”
It wasn’t so simple, though. She came up the next day and rode, but she didn’t stay out very long, and she didn’t seem to enjoy it. Favors-done wasn’t the air she liked to breathe, evidently. She called Ben “Mr. Webber,” me nothing at all and would hardly even raise her eyes to look at Clyde.
When she was putting the horse back into the corral, Ben slipped through the gate behind her. It was a heavy wooden gate with baling-wire hinges; he dragged it shut and must have thought he had her more or less cornered, inside the corral, and she did stop and talk--or listen. I could see his head tilted forward and down, his mouth moving, while she stood with her chin raised and every now and then shook her head; the end of her braid would shake too, as if it could say no by itself.
A car pulled up into the lot. A short, solid-looking man got out and stood looking up toward the barn. “Goodby, Mr. Webber. I have to go. There’s my father. Thanks.” She climbed between two boards of the fence that were about eight inches apart, and ran, leaving Ben holding the bridle.
He still managed to laugh. “Well, son,” he said, “I asked her if she’d like to help us in exchange for having a horse to ride sometimes, and she said no. So then I said, ‘Like that boy there does. He works for rides, and he seems to enjoy the work almost as much as he does the riding.’ And she took one look at you and said double-no.” Ben saw the look on my face. “I’m just joshing you, son. But she did say no. That message came through pretty clear.”
“I don’t know why she doesn’t want to work to ride. Maybe it’s because she and her friend never had to. They just took a horse and rode. Or maybe it smells like charity to her. She didn’t seem to enjoy her free ride, did she? But chances are she won’t be back, so we won’t have to worry about it.”
She was back the next day. She walked around here and there, looked inside the office, which was mostly full of saddles, looked inside the tack room, poked her head into the grain bin, then spent half an hour chatting up two or three of the privately owned horses that were kept in stalls, rubbing their necks. Then she went over to the rent-horse corral again, but farther up the hill this time, away from the barnyard, up by where the water barrels were, to sit on the fence. And nobody bothered her.
Even when Ben went up to fill the water barrels (me trailing along, to help), he wasn’t going to do any more than nod to her. But this time she jumped down right away and started a conversation.
“Yes, ma’am?” He sank the end of the hose into the water so he could hear.
“Do you know Mr. Watkins?”
“Watkins? I don’t know. I might. Who is he?”
“Have you heard of Watkins Chevrolet?”
“On the radio, I have.”
“Do you know Mr. Watkins, though?”
“That Watkins? No.”
“I do. He’s my uncle on my mother’s side.”
That was the beginning, and I think he already didn’t believe her. “Well, that’s good, sweetheart. Everybody’d like to have a rich uncle. I know I would, if he’d give me anything.”
“He wants to buy me a horse.”
“Well . . . good,” Ben said.
“He wants me to pick one out.”
“Well . . . that’s good too. I’m glad to hear it. But you don’t want to depend too much just on what you hope will happen.”
“I know,” she said. “But he does.”
Afterward, Ben shook his head. And later, when she’d gone home, I heard him say--not to me, but to Toni--that it was a ticklish business, because he thought the little girl was lying, but he wasn’t sure, and then he said that if he was sure, it would still be a ticklish business.
Toni laughed and said, “The world better watch out for that girl. In fact, I’d better watch out for her.”
“Afraid not,” Ben said.
“He says, wistfully,” Toni said.
Even though she always came straight from school (carrying her school clothes in a paper bag), and I always went home first, still she would get to the stables later than me, because she had farther to come on the bus and farther to walk. Ben and I were cleaning stalls, a couple of days after she’d talked to him the first time about her uncle. Ben was sweating, bent double over a short-handled, wide-barreled shovel. She appeared at the stall door, looking as if she’d just stepped out of a bandbox--as if nothing in this world had ever touched her. He stopped and straightened up and wiped his brow, while I stood back in the deep shade, as if I wasn’t there, which I wasn’t, to her.
“Mr. Webber, my uncle wants me to have a horse for sure ,” she said.
“Oh? Did you see him, then?”
“He wrote it in a letter.”
“And when is this horse-buying going to take place?”
“He’s on a trip, a business trip. When he comes back he’s going to pay you.”
“Me? When he comes back from . . . buying Chevrolets, I imagine.”
“I know,” she said. “But he wants me to have the horse first--because he won’t be back for a while.”
Ben paused. He didn’t ask any of the obvious things, that even I thought of, to trick or trap her, but whether he was right or wrong not to, who knows.
“He wants me to have the horse now,” she said. “I can show you the letter.”
“No, you just hang on to the letter, honey. You say he wants you to have the horse--what does he mean, exactly?”
“To keep here in a stall, for me to ride.”
“I see. For you and nobody else to ride.”
“If it’s my horse, nobody else could ride him if I didn’t let them--and I wouldn’t.”
“I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t either,” Ben said. “Especially if I could do tricks on him.”
“No,” she said.
“So then when he comes back, this uncle of yours, he’ll pay the board bill plus the purchase price--is that right?”
“But doesn’t he want to know how much the horse will cost, before he agrees to buy it?”
“He wants me to find that out,” she said.
“And which horse did you have in mind?”
“Chico,” she said.
“Well, he’d run your uncle about two hundred dollars, and the board bill is either fifteen or twenty dollars a month. Do you want him fed grain or only hay?”
“We want him fed grain,” she said.
“All right. And it’ll take a letter a little while to get to your uncle, and another while for him to write back. Would you like to move the horse into a stall before that--this evening, say--and we’ll put it on the books for tomorrow?”
She said, “Yes,” but didn’t move.
“Was there something more?” Ben said.
No, it was the shock of accomplishment, and disbelief. “Take a halter,” he said. “You go with her, son. Bring Chico down and put him in a stall. You show her which ones there are to choose from.”
So I showed her, and she was friendlier to me then, and from then on, than she ever had been before. It was as if she’d risen so high above me now (in her own mind--she had always been high above me in mine), that she could chat with me without risking being dragged down. And she would let me look over the half-door of the stall while she was inside with the horse. The first three or four afternoons, she spent hours petting the horse on all the ticklish parts of his body, where he wasn’t used to being touched--the flanks, and between the hind legs, up under the tail, all the while saying things like, “It’s all right, stand still, that doesn’t hurt, it only tickles, don’t kick, please don’t kick, I’ll kick you, don’t kick, thank you, no, put your leg down, put it down--that’s right. . . .” until she could touch him anywhere without his flinching.
After she’d done that, she started climbing all over him--sliding over his rump, swinging on his neck, and after that, she crawled all under him--straight through under his belly, then squeezed herself between his front legs and even his hind ones.
Spring was becoming summer. We were still in school, but the afternoons were long, and her father didn’t come for her now. She would stay till evening, then take a lift to the bus, if anyone offered her one. At first she hardly rode. But she’d bring the horse out and tie him to the hitch rail--though within two weeks she’d taught him to ground-tie, so wherever the halter rope or the reins touched the ground, he’d stand. She’d brush every inch of him, scrape the fly eggs off his leg hairs with the blade of a pocket knife, put Vaseline inside his ears where flies had nibbled away at the skin.
One day she came up with a leather headpiece that she’d made at home; it had little tassels on it that jiggled when he moved his head and frightened the flies away from his face and eyes. She double-bedded him in straw and cleaned the stall every day herself, though two cleanings a week would have come gratis with the price of the board.
Then she began to ride in the evenings, always alone. She liked to use the ring, but only if no one else was in it. We’d watch her from a distance. She had a canvas surcingle that made it easy for her bare feet to get a grip, and she’d ride standing up, doing no tricks but that, which didn’t look like a trick, even at a lope, when she did it.
We were sitting on the porch of Ben’s house. It was dusk. She was moving in a slow lope, round and round the ring. The curve of her back would shift-and-flex, shift-and-flex, in a rhythm that was really the horse’s rhythm, which she just absorbed.
“Isn’t that a lovely thing to watch,” Ben said.
“It or she?” Toni said.
“Take a good look,” Clyde said. “You’re paying for it.”
“It is beautiful,” Toni said. “So peaceful looking.”
“She never does any wild stunts,” Ben said.
“Remember how wild the two of them were when we saw them?” Toni said. “I guess it’s hard to be wild by yourself, though.”
“I think it’s balm to her soul,” Ben said. “Do you remember the old fellow whose wife died? Time went by, and he got a little over it, and he said: ‘Well, I lost my drinking partner.’ Expressed a little of what he felt. I wonder if she’s doing something like that, but without words.”
“But, what will happen? With her uncle?” Toni said.
“I don’t know. Something. It always does.”
“I wonder what her parents think.”
“She won’t bring her father near here anymore. Afraid I’ll talk to him about her uncle, I suppose.”
“He doesn’t drive a Hal Watkins Chevrolet, does he,” Clyde said. “Just an old Ford.”
“I wonder what kind of man he is,” Ben said. “He looks pretty solid.”
“That’s not half of it,” Clyde said. “I found out from Jute, he’s fierce as a little bobcat.”
“To her?” Ben said.
“I didn’t say that.”
“What’s he do for a living?”
“Works. But they say he trains dogs on the side, and raises every kind of animal you can keep in a back yard--does well at it. But you’d better watch out. Jute told me, one day some fellow tried to run this little bobcat’s Ford off the road, nobody knows why, and he caught up to him somewhere afterward and got out, and that other fellow saw his face and locked all the doors of his car and rolled his windows up tight and wouldn’t answer when he was spoken to--and this bobcat-man we’re talking about, he just smashed his fist right through the glass, opened the door and lifted this fellow out like he was picking up a rabbit. He’d tear you into more pieces than we could find, probably.”
“Well, I’d protest that,” Ben said. “Anyhow, I’m not going to run him off the road. You’re just sorry I didn’t ask you to share the board bill, I mean in case she doesn’t have an uncle.”
“Everybody has an uncle,” Clyde said, “But you can bet her uncle doesn’t know he has a horse.”
About eleven o’clock on a June morning I was walking from my house along the unpaved road, when she came riding up behind me on Chico. “Going to the stables?”
“Want a ride?”
The surcingle had no stirrups. “I can’t get on,” I said.
“Oh, yes you can. Here, put your foot on my foot--and I’ll lean the other way and you swing. Now, swing!”
And out of shame and desire I swung my chubby self up behind her--then sat there afraid to touch her.
“You’d better hold on,” she said, and started off.
So I took hold of her sides. She struck out into a lope, and started to laugh, and the laugh vibrated up through my arms and turned into some emotion of my own--longing, love--the most intense experience in my young life.
Just as we crested the stables hill, we saw her father’s car down below. She stopped the horse. Her father got out on one side, and another, bigger man on the other. “Uh oh. Off,” she said. “Goodby.” She pressed her bare heels into Chico’s ribs and away she went.
“Come back!” the big man shouted.
Ben came out of his house, took one look around, and started walking slowly down the hill to the office, where Clyde was already, and the other two men converged there, too.
I dawdled, out of fear.
Ben put out his hand; her father shook it.
The big man was seedy-looking, as if he over-ate and -drank. His face was red, anyway, right now, and he was opening and closing his hands in a kind of fury. While her father stood looking about as excited as a fire hydrant, but watchful. “And this is my wife’s brother, Mr. Watkins,” he said.
Ben put out his hand again, but the man would hardly touch it. “Are you one of the . . . Chevrolet Watkins, sir?”
“Ha-ha. And now I’m going to ask you a question. Whose horse is that that she’s riding?”
“My horse,” Ben said.
“And who pays for her to ride him? Who’s expected to pay?”
“There’s been no pay on either side. He’s kept in a stall and fed grain, so he’s lively and needs exercise. She takes him out and rides him--at my request and corresponding to her wish--and she trains him a little too. She’s good at that, he’s a better horse for it, and I’m not looking for any pay.”
“That’s right,” Clyde said.
“I have a letter in my pocket,” the uncle said. He reached into a back pocket and pulled out a sheet of paper. “It’s got my name signed to it, and I don’t like that. She told you a whopping lie, which you were foolish enough to believe. That’s why she’s out riding that horse. And now you’re telling me another, which I’m not foolish enough to believe. How many horses do you let these kids ride for free?”
“Not many,” Ben said.
Meanwhile, the father stood quiet, watching. It was a funny thing. You began to feel, there was so much potential motion in that stillness. He reminded us all of her, when we had time to think about it.
Ben turned away from the big man and said to the father, “I lied. I didn’t know whether you’d seen a letter or not. I’d never seen it myself, but I’d heard of it. Could I look at it, please?”
“Give him the letter, John,” the father said.
“Why for? He’ll--"
But the father just nodded, and the uncle gave Ben the letter, but he didn’t stop talking. “I’d like to have her here for about five minutes, I’d--"
“Well, you won’t though, will you,” the father said. ‘She’s like a treed cat, she won’t come down, not while she thinks you’re here, or probably even while I’m here. That’s how she is. But I’m going to take you back to your car now, and you’re going to go home.”
Ben looked at the letter and handed it back.
“I can wait,” the uncle said.
“I’ll take you down to your car.” He put his hand on the uncle’s shoulder. “You come on over next week, and we’ll make a stew out of some rabbits and talk it all over when you’ve got your temper back. You haven’t lost anything. And I don’t believe that this gentleman meant any harm. He may even have meant the opposite of harm. You come with me. And if my girl comes back,” he said to Ben, “you tell her I’ll be here after dark. You pick her up and tell her there won’t be anybody at our house but her mother and me.”
All afternoon we watched for her, but she didn’t come back. “He’ll wait a long time after dark, for her,” Clyde said. “We’ll have to put a warrant out on our horse.”
“She’ll bring the horse back. He’ll be in his stall in the morning,” Ben said.
“Well, you’re an optimist.”
“But I’m afraid we’ll never see her again afterwards.”
“Well, you’re really an optimist.”
Ben didn’t smile.
It got dark. I had to go home. Ben put a note on the stall door--saying what her father’d asked him to--and went up to the house to supper.
This time Ben was nearly right. Except she didn’t put the horse in a stall, she turned him back into the big corral with the other rent-horses. They found him there in the morning. The bridle, which belonged to Ben, was hanging on the gatepost. Her surcingle she’d taken with her. They hadn’t heard her father’s car. Maybe she’d met him, though, on the road. She hadn’t seen the note. We found it still on the stall door.
Two years after that, Ben was in the market, Mashburn Brothers, where he always shopped. Someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned, and of course it was her. He hardly knew her at first, she’d grown so.
“Mr. Webber,” she said, smiled at him, big as life, and shook his hand. She was back at Sunset Stables, had a horse of her own, and a boyfriend. Ben told her to drop in up at our stables. She said she’d like to. And afterward, when she hadn’t, he didn’t know whether to be sorry or glad.