August 1954: Snow Canyon, Utah
From his vantage point with the horses on a small hillock, Gabe Boone watched the cameras track the actor across the simmering desert floor toward the skin-draped yurt. Even with the heavy makeup around the man’s eyes, no one would have mistaken him for Genghis Khan. His height, his build, his long-legged stride—they could only have belonged to one man: John Wayne. “He sure is something to see, ain’t he?” drawled Curly, another wrangler on the film set.
They’d been standing there holding the horse’s reins going on two hours now. Curly was twice Gabe’s age, but because of a life spent mainly on ranches and in too many bars, he looked sixty. His face had been burned saddle-brown by the sun and wind, his tobacco-stained teeth almost the same color.
Gabe, only twenty-two and a non-drinker, non-chewer, flashed pearly whites. “He is that. But he don’t look like no Mongol.”
“Seen a lot of Mongols, whatever those be?”
Gabe walked over to a big bay, straightened its saddle, and tried to look knowing. “Cowboys like us is what they are, from somewhere out in China.”
“Commies.” Curly spit a disdainful wad of tobacco on the ground, barely missing his own boot.
Gabe sighed. There Curly went again, seeing a Commie behind every rock and cactus. You’d think he was the one left Korea minus a finger. Gabe stared down at the stump where his left forefinger had been. Curly could rave on, but as for himself, after what he’d been through over there, he didn’t want to think about war, politics, or what-have-you, didn’t want to think about anything except settling down and raising a family. Abby wanted kids, lots of them. He did, too. The sound of kids laughing, well, wasn’t that what life was all about?
Curly wasn’t through griping. After spitting again, this time a little further away, he said, “Damned Commies, them Chinese, them Ruskies and all their stinking friends, think they can come over here and take away our horses and saddles and make us call ’em Comrade. Well, we got a big ol’ answer for ’em, don’t we?”
Gabe didn’t want to hear about that, either. He was sick of it. “All right, all right. The Commies is devils and the rest of us is angels. Have at it, I don’t care. But that Mongol emperor Wayne’s playing lived hundreds of years ago, long before Red China or that Korea mess, and I’m betting you dollars to doughnuts ol’ Genghis wasn’t no Commie. What I was trying to tell you is that Abby and me, when we drove her dad’s truck over to Los Angeles last year, we went to this Chinese restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard and met a guy who was actually born in Mongolia, and believe me, he didn’t look nothing like John Wayne. Not that it matters. With the big man in the movie, it’s sure to be a hit.”
Mood soothed, Curly jerked his head toward the actress below, a porcelain-skinned redhead who looked even less Asian than Wayne. “Miss Hayward should sell a few tickets, too. Wonder if I can get Harriet to dress up like that.”
At the thought of Curly’s wife, with her doughy arms and massive belly, dressed in a see-through harem outfit, Gabe laughed so hard it spooked Steel, Wayne’s favorite horse. Once he settled the animal down, he said, “Can’t hurt to ask.”
Curly grunted. “There’s inexperience talking.”
Gabe didn’t bother to argue. Now that Wayne was out of sight of the cameras and his own worshipful eyes, he turned his attention elsewhere. While Steel and the other horses pawed at the hot earth in irritated boredom, he studied the scene spread out below. A mile of dusty flatland stretched out before him, encircled by tall red and white sandstone formations. Here and there black lava boulders dappled a renegade patch of green, while above, the cloudless blue sky almost seemed to glow. Normally deserted, Snow Canyon swarmed with more than two hundred Hollywood types, a dozen or so wranglers, and upwards of three hundred Paiute Indians outfitted to look like Mongols. Because of their high cheekbones and weathered faces, the Paiute looked a lot more Asian than the high-priced actors. But they were all—wranglers and Indians—grateful that in the two months working on this movie they’d earned more than they usually saw in a year. Enough for Gabe to finish the down payment on that little ranch he and Abby had been saving up for. God bless Hollywood. It had made her smile for the first time in…
“How is Abby these days?”
Curly’s question, coming right on top of Gabe’s thoughts, startled him. “Uh, fine, I guess.”
“That blue-eyed pup I brought over cheer her up any?”
Gabe believed that if there was any trait worse than being mean to horses, it was lying to a friend, so he was careful in his answer. “She’s been feeling some better, has that pup sleeping in a box right next to the bed. But it takes a woman hard, losing a baby like that.”
“Men, too, maybe.”
Refusing to let Curly see him flush, Gabe turned away from the other man’s watchful eyes and fiddled with Steel’s bridle. The night before he’d polished the leather until it gleamed, but by mid-morning it had already been coated by red dust. Not just the bridle, either. Yesterday, Curly had joked that all the wranglers were red by the end of the day. “Red as them Paiutes,” he’d finished.
The old wrangler hadn’t exaggerated much. The red dust covered every man and woman in the canyon, darkening their faces, hennaing their hair, even creeping into their underclothes.
The wranglers didn’t mind. Dust and heat, it was all the same to them, part of the pattern of the day. It was different for the actors. They made their money from their faces, so a crowd of make-up artists kept fussing around to keep them pretty.
Except for Wayne. The dirtier he got, the better he liked it. Now, there was a man, Gabe thought. The real deal. No wonder he was called “The Duke.” Unlike most of those Hollywood actors, Wayne could ride with the roughest of them, damned be the dust, damned be the scorpions, damned be the snakes and the cactus and damned be all the hell Snow Canyon threw at him. Sometimes at night the Duke even came over to the chuck wagon and shared a bottle or two—or three or four—with the wranglers, matching them drink for drink, slapping them on their backs, telling dirty stories that made you laugh in spite of yourself. And that wasn’t all. Despite his movie reputation as an Indian-killer, Wayne didn’t ignore the Paiutes, either. The fact that some of them couldn’t speak English didn’t faze him none; he had the gift of making himself understood. Many was the night Gabe heard the Duke’s deep laugh boom over the Paiutes’ own, carried on the wind from the Indian encampment.
“A man’s man,” Gabe whispered to the horse. “Tough as need be.”
“What’s that you mumbling?”
Before Gabe could give another carefully considered answer, Curly doubled over and began to cough. He coughed so long and hard that Gabe feared he’d cough up his lungs.
“You okay there, pardner?”
Between coughs, Curly waved Gabe’s concern away. “Never… been…better. Damned…dust.”
There had been a lot of coughing lately, from the wranglers, the Paiutes, the Hollywood people—even the horses. That red dust oiled its way out of the air and down into a man’s lungs, settling there to make trouble until he coughed it back out. But men could take care of themselves. It was the horses Gabe worried about. He didn’t know which was worse on the animals, the dust that gave them so much trouble breathing or the blisters that formed on their mouths after they’d grazed on the puny straggles of buffalo grass poking from the parched red earth.
Come to think of it, some of those Paiutes suffered from the same blisters. Maybe that was because they ate the rabbits and ground squirrels that had been eating the bad grass. Used to hunt the antelope, the Indians did, brought down deer and elk. But lately, the larger animals had been dying off, covered with sores all over their bodies. Sometimes their coats and muzzles looked so scary the Paiutes wouldn’t touch them, made do with smaller game and whatever else they could forage. Desert plants, pine nuts, spindly stuff that would hardly keep a chicken alive.
This canyon country was a hard country. Men and horses had to be hard to endure it.
When Curly’s coughs died away, Gabe turned his eyes to the film set, where the Duke was swaggering toward Susan Hayward, his hand on the huge knife at his waist. The cameras—one of them mounted on a small metal track—moved back as he approached her.
The scalding wind, blowing down from the canyon and toward the small hillock where Gabe and Curly waited, lifted the actor’s words to them. “What Temujin wants, he takes, Bortai!”
The beautiful redhead clutched her skimpy costume close to her breasts. Defiance lit her eyes. “No dog of a Mongol…”
She began to cough.