No one in my family had any thought of going into the pictures, not at first. We were ranchers--cattle and sheep, mostly, plus the ostrich enterprise. I heard about moving pictures from kids at school, but I never saw one myself until after I’d played parts in half a dozen different reels. By then my brothers were on their way to becoming stars--the Daredevil Donnelly Brothers, a Death-Defying Cowboy Trio. Which of course was a lot of piffle. Death-defying, my eyeball. They’d been racing horses across the chaparral since before any of them wore shoes--nothing death-defying about doing it on camera. Not compared, say, to leaping out the window of a burning building. But that’s jumping ahead.
We lived outside Lemon Springs, California, not far from San Diego. Our part of the county is thick with cottonwood, sagebrush, and yucca--heaven for rattlers and the occasional tarantula. My mother taught me to sit a horse at age three because she said it was safer than running around barefoot in snake country. By the time I was nine, I could ride as well as any of my older brothers, and I never had the benefit of trousers and spurs. I just hitched up my skirt and rode astraddle in bare feet. Why, I could ride standing up on the horse’s back, holding on by my toes and the reins, if the terrain was pretty level--as long as I was well out of range of my mother’s line of sight.
My big brothers’ riding prowess is what got them noticed by the Flying Q director. They were working cowboys, and I don’t think any of them ever imagined a life in the limelight. Once or twice a year they rode in local rodeos and usually snatched up most of the prizes; that was about as much fame as any Donnelly boy ever expected to experience. And then one day, a month after my eleventh birthday, a portly man in riding boots and breeches strode up to my oldest brother, Bill, after a calf-roping exercise, shook his hand, and said, “Son, how’d you like to pull that same stunt in a moving picture?”
“Huh?” replied Bill in his typically eloquent fashion.
“Name’s Thornton Corrigan,” said the man. He had a confident mustache and a kind of fierce snap in his gaze. “I direct moving pictures for the Flying Q Film Company. I’m looking for a couple of good riders for a Western we’re shooting next week.”
“Shooting?” echoed Bill.
“What’s it pay?” asked my brother Ike, elbowing in. He was sore at Bill for taking first prize. Bill always took first in the roping events, but if there were a prize for getting straight to the point of a discussion, Ike would have taken it every time.
Mr. Corrigan didn’t bat an eye at Ike’s directness. “We pay handsomely for real talent,” he answered smoothly. “I need fellas who can ride like the blazes and do some rope tricks on film--real showy stuff, plenty of panache.”
“On film?” exclaimed Bill. “Like in the pictures?” Moving pictures were so new that I hadn’t even seen one yet. I had to put up with hearing about them from kids at school.
“That’s right,” said Mr. Corrigan.
“But we ain’t actors,” chimed in my brother Frank. He was sixteen, with one pitiful mustache hair for each year, more or less. I could see he was mighty impressed with Mr. Corrigan’s bristle brush.
“I’m not looking for actors, son,” replied Mr. Corrigan. “I’ve got actors crawling out of my ears.” (I couldn’t help but dart a glance at his ears then, even though I knew he was only being poetic. They appeared undisturbed.) “I need real cowboys. I pride myself on the authenticity of my pictures.”
Au-then-ticity, I repeated silently in my head. It was what my father would call a five-dollar word, and I had no idea what it meant, but I liked it. It sounded like a place I’d like to visit.
By the end of that conversation, Mr. Corrigan had gotten himself invited to dinner at the ranch. By the end of that dinner, he’d talked my father into giving the boys a day off their cattle work to do some rope tricks in front of a Flying Q camera. By the end of the week, all three of my brothers were roped into the motion picture business just as firmly as any calf Bill ever lassoed with his eyes closed, and my father had to advertise for some new ranch hands.
Everyone around here thinks of life in two sections, like a two-reel picture: before Flying Q and after Flying Q. My mother tells me stories about how her family moved from Fletcher, Colorado, to San Diego, California, when she was a little girl, about as old as I was when the studio set up operations in Lemon Springs. She says all her memories are divided into Before The Move and After The Move. I guess it’ll be the same for me, only it’s Before The Movies and After The Movies. We stayed put on our same old ranch, and I still have to get up and do my ostrich chores before breakfast, same as ever, but just about everything else in my life is different since Flying Q swooped in. I guess when I’m old like my mother, I’ll be telling my kids before-and-after stories, too. Assuming I don’t break my neck jumping onto a moving train first--or get kicked in the head by an irked ostrich.
Our ranch runs mostly to cattle, but we have one big pen beyond the kitchen garden for the ostriches. We raise some for meat and some for eggs, and all of them for their big plumy feathers, which fetch a pretty penny. Mama sells them to a hatmaker in San Diego every year after molting season.
We keep six or seven birds at a time, most of ’em females because we rely on the eggs. One ostrich egg makes a scramble big enough to feed our whole family. Chicken eggs taste a heap better, though. My grandmother says chicken-egg scrambles are for fancy folk who have time to spend all day cracking shells. But I notice it doesn’t take her all day to crack chicken eggs when she’s making a cake. You’d have to make ten cakes if you wanted to use an ostrich egg. The only catch is that ostriches, unlike chickens, don’t lay eggs year-round.
Here’s what your morning’s like when you’re the youngest kid in the family, meaning you’re the one stuck tending the birds. They aren’t like other ranch stock--no chummy nuzzles like you get from horses, or placid indifference like cows and sheep. No, ostriches are nasty-tempered she-demons who’d as soon crack your skull as look at you. At least, that’s what my father says. He won’t go near the birds. “They’re my wife’s enterprise,” he always says. She grew up ducking kicks from the she-demons, just like me--After The Move, that is. That means she got kind of a late start, compared to me. I started feeding the birds and collecting their eggs when I was six years old. They mostly ignore me now. Ike says I’m so gangly and long-legged myself that they just think I’m one of ’em.
But I still have to look sharp when I open the gate to their pen or Jezebel will charge me. She’s the meanest she-demon of the bunch. The trick is to fill their food trough first, then unhook the latch to their coop with a big stick poked through the fence, and then, after they’ve thundered out to bury their heads in breakfast, I creep around to the pasture gate and open it while they’re occupied. After they eat, they stampede out to pasture and I use my stick to shut the gate behind them. Then I can clean the coop and, in egg season, check for eggs in peace and quiet. Well, quiet at least. It’s hard to feel exactly peaceful when you’re shoveling fresh ostrich dung.
When I’m finished, I carry the eggs into the kitchen, where my grandmother takes them over. I get sent to wash up before breakfast. Nobody wants to sit down to a meal next to the girl who cleans the ostrich pen.
It all goes in reverse in the evenings, except for the egg-gathering and poo-shoveling parts. Mama still makes me scrub my arms, face, and feet before I’m allowed to sit down for dinner. I used to think I must be the cleanest kid in San Diego County. Then I got to know Mary Mason. She bathes as much as I do (more, since her baths are long soaks in a tub instead of hasty scrub-downs with a rough towel like mine), and she doesn’t get herself stunk up doing ostrich chores in between.
From our ostrich pen you can look east over the valley to Bittercreek and the mountains beyond. The sun shoots over those mountains in the morning right in time to jab my eyeballs with rays when I’m tending the birds. It sets over the Pacific Ocean, but we’re almost twenty miles from the coast and our ranch is too flat for a view. Once, when I was six or seven years old, my father took my brothers and me to the top of Mount Caracol, a smallish mountain a little northeast of town, and we took in the view to the west, past Lemon Springs to San Diego and, beyond that, a glittering stripe of ocean. Papa lifted me onto his shoulders so I could see even farther. I remember how far away everything seemed--the ocean, the tall palm trees, the hills; even my brothers standing beside us seemed a long way down from my perch.
From our ranch the westward view is mostly just pastureland and scrub. In the mornings a fresh, clean smell of sage sweeps across the chaparral, and the comfortable sound of cattle drifts across the pastures. Every spring the spiky yucca plants send up tall shoots of big white bell-shaped flowers. Grandma calls them our-Lord’s-lantern plants. My brother Ike calls them hell’s bells, because the yucca leaves are sharp as needles and will slice your arm if you get too close, walking by. (But he never calls them that around our grandmother.)
Until Mr. Corrigan appeared in our lives, I didn’t think much about the world beyond our ranch and Lemon Springs. My world was ostriches and horses, and the rumble of cattle and the bleating of sheep, and school in the village, and Sunday Mass at the white stucco chapel. It felt pretty big to me, back then--before Mr. Corrigan sent me up in a hot-air balloon and I saw our ranch way down below, looking about as big as a quilt square.
When my brothers started riding horses in Flying Q’s one-reelers, no one (least of all me) ever dreamed I’d wind up in pictures myself. I would bet a nickel my mother would have shut me in a closet before she’d ever let me near Flying Q, if she could have foreseen the crazy things I would wind up doing. I might have shut my own self in a closet if I’d known I’d wind up climbing out of a hot-air balloon forty feet above the ground.
I’m glad we didn’t know.
“Ike got shot off his horse yesterday,” said my brother Bill through a mouthful of egg, about a week after the boys started working for Mr. Corrigan.
“Good heavens!” cried my grandmother, her fork clattering to her plate.
“Just pretend-shot, Grandma,” Ike assured her. I don’t know why she was so worried in the first place. If you’ve been really shot, I don’t think you sit down at the dinner table nice and casual and snatch the biggest piece of ham off the platter.
“For the picture,” Bill added superfluously.
“That was a splendid tumble you took, Ikey,” said my brother Frank admiringly. “I thought you’d broken your neck for sure.”
“GOOD HEAVENS!” shouted my mother and grandmother in unison. My father slowly set down his mug, eyeing Ike appraisingly. Mama rose hastily to her feet, her chair scraping on the floor, snatched up the coffeepot, and stormed into the kitchen. Frank stared after her with an anxious gaze, but Ike went on shoveling scrambled eggs and fried ham into his face.
“Why’s everyone in such a stew?” asked Bill.
“Suppose,” said my father slowly, “you tell us exactly what it is this fella Corrigan has you boys doing out there.” In the kitchen a pot clanged hard on the iron stove.
“Aw, it’s swell, Papa,” said Ike eagerly. “Mostly, we ride hard in a pack of other cowboys and wave shotguns around--don’t worry, they ain’t loaded--but whenever the picture calls for a fancy stunt, Corrigan has me or Frank or Bill do it. We can outdo those other fellas by a mile.”
“Don’t boast, Isaac,” snapped Grandma. Her mouth was pressed into a tight thin line.
“It ain’t boasting, Grandma,” said Ike, brushing a brown curl off his forehead with the back of his hand. “It’s the plain truth. The rest of ’em can ride all right if the terrain’s level, but if you need someone to take a spill or switch horses in the middle of a hard gallop--”
“Ike,” muttered Frank in a warning tone, but Ike ignored him.
“--then you want a Donnelly on the spot.”
“What the blazes kind of picture is this?” demanded Papa. “Sounds more like a circus act.”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” interjected my grandmother, making the sign of the cross.
“They’re Westerns, Papa,” said Frank. “That’s why these picture people came looking for rodeo champions. It’s a display of horsemanship.”
In the kitchen my mother snorted. I couldn’t help but let out a snicker. Ike shot me a glare. I quickly blanked my face and busied myself spreading manzanita jelly on a biscuit.
“Mm-hmm,” murmured my father. I could see he was skeptical.
I spooned another dollop of jelly on my biscuit, figuring everyone was too distracted to notice.
“Shucks, Papa, you’re the one who taught us how to take a spill without breaking a bone,” Ike pointed out.
“That was a safety precaution,” Papa snapped. “Everyone takes a tumble now and then. Best to know how not to get yourself killed. I sure as heck didn’t expect you’d be going out of your way to fall on purpose, though.”
“Jacob, language!” said my grandmother. My brothers all burst out laughing--it was always so funny when Grandma scolded Papa like a naughty child, especially since she was Mama’s mama, not his--and I took advantage of the distraction to sneak another spoonful of jelly. I didn’t have much biscuit left at this point, and the jelly slid down around the edges onto my fingers.
Copyright © 2020 by Melissa Wiley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.