ANIMALS OUT OF WORK
An excerpt from Come Home Canyon
Jill Schary Robinson

“Shameful time for your buddies,” Ember said to her horse Rusty as she rode him into Come Home Canyon. Horses used to have jobs. Now, really rich people kept some horses polished up like poker chips. As they rode, the few horses still ground just looked over Rusty as if he was a show-off. She heard the thundering up behind them. A guy rattled by in his Ford and squeezed his rubber bugle, honking them off to the side. The horses gave each other downcast looks. Shook their heads. It was real hard, Ember guessed, for these horses to see owners you used to work for, rumbling in on these motored rides, these ugly creatures called cars, dolled up in knight-in-shining armor metal. Nothing you’d want to hold close. For horses, it was the end of love and feeling useful. “We’re just about dust.” 

Ember left Rusty out to graze and tossed off her boots in Hank’s cabin. 

“Ember, Good Lord! Pull up your sox, kid! We got a job today!” Uncle Hank slapped her on the shoulder. “Own five horses, coin’ fine. Jose and Lance coming home from fixing Las Virgenes Canyon fences. Jose’ll need coffee.” Hank looked at the big clock rescued from the old Post Office. “You and I, due in Culver City—two hours from now.” 

Uncle Hank, Head Stunt Man at MGM, had trained Ember. She put on the percolator, ran up the trail to the main house to her loft. Put on frontier pants, blue-checkered shirt. Pulled back her long dark red hair tied into a ponytail with a twist of leather, grinned at her face, cheeks her friend Josie and called her look. “You approach people tough. They get thrown by how you look them over. Then you grin and they laugh right up with you.” Ember loved Josie, but Josie was thrown two years ago, broke her neck. Thank whatever I got Rusty and Hank. And Jose. And now, at 14, Ember heard Hank say, next to him she was “the best stunt person in town.” Hank didn’t throw compliments around. Jose had been a toreador when he was a kid; he’d left his family’s big ranches in Mexico to work with Hank in movies. They were best buddies and each wore a wide, silver cuff with each other’s names on. 

“Heard from your Ma this morning?” Hank asked. Ma was Hank’s sister. 

“No. She’s, you know. I didn’t hear her come home—except she was smashed, shoes on stairs, some guy using the spitoon. Yuck.” 

Everyone at school knew Ma was a drunk. And “cheap.” And when kids would tease—“I saw your Ma on the balcony in nothing but her black stockings”—Ember would cringe and hope she’d get a job on a far-off location. The ranch where she lived with Ma was right on the main Sage Brush road. And Ma would hang out looking for jobless guys ambling by. Whatever, just someone needing a drink and some time naked in bed. Ember got the percolator started for Hank, and she put the kettle on for Jose’s rosemary tea. Lance, his horse, was a Palomino. He liked her horse Rusty, but Rusty wasn’t interested in anything but galloping around the canyons with Ember. 

“Eggs and bacon?” Ember asked Hank. She took the frypan down from the rack.

“Just a couple of eggs for me, Sweetie.” He slapped his gut. “Jose said I got to lay off fat or I’ll be losing my looks, not to mention too heavy to somersault off a rooftop.” 

“Aw, Hank, you’ll always be the real best, and handsome as Gable, if you ask me. I”m going to walk some coffee up the trail to Ma. See if she’s—you know—“

“I know.” 

The trails connecting the cabin, the ranch house, the stables, and the tack room were kept rough and netted with chaparral brush to keep the land from sliding toward the sea during storm season. Ember reached the high point halfway to the back door of the house and turned, looking out over the sea. There’d never be anything she loved more than this view, the smell of this land, with the whiff of horse. There’s no use for people without land and horses. No reason whatever. She raised her arms to the sun. There was a prayer this Indian teacher said at school every morning. Vishnu was really born in the Land of India across from China—or whatever—but he was beautiful and you’d say, “Look to this Day, for it is Life…” and Ember liked to say it every day from this place—where her life was. She loved the line about “the Splendor of Action.” Whoever wrote that rode horses and knew them well. Embver told that to Vishnu who agreed. 

“A horse needs to come out at dawn. To catch the best, earliest light.” 

Now, holding the mug of coffee steady Ember climbed the steps to Ma’s wing, knocked on the door. 

“What the hell do you want?” Ma shouted. 

“I got you some coffee.” 

“I don’t want it.” 

“Ma. It’s me.” 

“Who?” 

“Ember. MA!

“Then you ought to know not to wake me.” 

"Well, I’m going with Hank—we got a job.” 

“Good for you!” Ma growled. 

“I’ll leave the coffee by the door.” 

“Yeah,” Ma said, voice blurry. Bad night. 

Ember walked down the trail, taking the right trail to the tack room, picked up a tube of the Veterinary liniment. Rusty still had a bit of a limp from an ankle twist a year ago. Jose had told Ember if she rubs it in “like this”—he’d showed her how—“it will be all gone. One day!” 

Rusty came running over, whinnying. When Ember took the right turn, she could feel his excitement, the lift of spirit, just like hers when they saw each other. Like when Jose saw Hank come in the door after a job and his eyes lit up. She felt that with Rusty and, with Hank, too. But it wasn’t the same—she’d love to see some real person look at her and be wild for her with his eyes.