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.