by Kristine Zeigler
Dusty planned each scene with the precision of an army general, attuned to safety, to the horses’ comfort, to the director’s needs, to the placement of the actors, to the cinematographer’s litany of complaints. Rarely did he need more than two takes. He saved the producer money just by walking on the set.
“Wish I could find ten more like him,” Mr. Deane said to the producer. “Best stuntman I’ve ever had. Saved me a bundle on the last picture after that scuffle with the Navajos. They wanted me to hire all theirhorsemen. Would have cost me a fortune. Dusty talked them out of it somehow. Handled all the horse runs himself and not one horse was lost.”
“Except for that pony, Mr. Deane,” said the assistant, who was taking notes and wasn’t supposed to talk. Mr. Deane shot him a look. The assistant looked down at his notepad.
“Like I said, no horses were lost on that set,” Mr. Deane said. “Not a one. You can ask any wrangler that was there.”
Forty years later Dusty is on a panel discussion inside a school gymnasium at the Lone Pine Film Festival, “Stunt Design, Animal Husbandry, and Plot.” Outside, festival attendees stroll from shop to shop or pause to take photographs with locals dressed as Wild Bill Hickok, Mae West, and John Wayne.
Dusty comes annually to relive each frame of his stunt career, speaking in front of rapt audiences in love with a fictional past created by men beneath the sharp teeth of the Sierra. On this land, most of the stories are based on fantasies with three crucial elements—violent clashes with natives who look more like Lakota Sioux warriors than Paiutes, long-barreled guns and worn felt hats, and belles who were not only in distress but who knew so little of their own desires that a man had to spell it out for them in a slow drawl.
Dusty draws the crowds, still slim in his Levi jeans and cowpoke cotton shirts with silver-pointed collars. Never married, Dusty has a gentle voice worn down by the yelping on the set. He is always accompanied by a lady friend who beams while he sits on the panels. He packs them in, eager Western enthusiasts, aging locals proud of their place in celluloid history, curious reporters sent by the Los Angeles Times and high desert newspapers, and television anchors. And one woman named Hilda Rinehardt, who came to retrieve what was rightfully hers: her true love, her virginity, her youth.
Hilda walked into the back of the room, saw Dusty and several other stuntmen onstage, and sat down. Her entrance went unnoticed. The room went dark but for the stage lights. If Dusty could have seen who was in the audience, he would have recognized her. It was her long eyelashes, her thick and shiny hair, and, most of all, he would have seen the ample curve of her bottom lip. He would have recalled the hours he spent nibbling, licking, and sucking on that bottom lip and the hours in his trailer with his hands under Hilda’s blouse, cupping her breasts and feeling her quivering breath beneath him.
She sighed and let her mind wander to the moment when her time in Hollywood was undone. One of Dusty’s men, an older teenager named Thomas Bent, was to dress as Hilda and sit sidesaddle while galloping a horse to a lookout. She had noticed how poorly Thomas rode. “I could do that better than him,” she had told Dusty. Dusty refused. So she had withheld her favors the rest of the week. By Sunday, Dusty relented and allowed her to do her own stunt. Mr. Deane was furious. “Do that again, missy, and you’ll see a pink slip the size of my ass.” She had giggled. He banned her from the set for the next week with the exception of her scenes. Still, she hadn’t thought much of it. She sulked in her trailer and did some knitting. At the end of her punishment, she promised Mr. Deane to be good. “Just be the actress I hired you to be—nothing more, nothing less,” he had said. She nodded and kissed Mr. Deane on the cheek. He wiped his face. “Now get on,” he said, nearly hitting her bottom with the back of his hand.
That’s when she had made the mistake. Ignoring Mr. Deane’s warning. He’s ornery, but I can handle him, she had thought. I’m not going to listen to what everyone says. I will go somewhere in this business on my own two feet, not because he makes it so.
About three weeks after her expulsion and subsequent reentry to the set, Hilda told Dusty she would perform her own stunt during the biggest scene in the film.
The shot required four teams of six horses apiece, each pulling a wagon filled with props such as hay and mining supplies, and they would careen toward the edge of a cliff like they had a death wish. But Dusty would whistle and signal the teams to stop, seemingly just in time. Of course, in real life there would be plenty of time to stop. Only stunt doubles would be used, and only the fastest, youngest, most courageous horses would do. There were three women in the scene, and, of course, the stuntmen would play their body doubles.
“I can’t let you do it, darling,” Dusty said.
“Sure you can. You can do anything you like. You’re his favorite.”
“Mr. Deane would have my hide, you know that.”
“Nah, he would never even know. How can he tell whether the body double is actually me riding? He’d be at least a hundred yards away.”
“Think about it, Dusty.”
“I’ll think about it, but you aren’t going to do it.”
“Come on. You know I can do it. You’ve seen me ride.” Dusty scooped Hilda into his arms and they fell back on to the bed.
“I’d like you to ride me.”
“You sick man!” She loved his dirty talk.
“I’m sick in love’s what I am,” he said, turning suddenly serious.
“You bet. I love you, girl,” he said, looking into her eyes for an answer.
“I loved you the moment I saw you.”
“Would you consent to stay in love forever?”
“I would, except you love a lot of women from what I’ve heard,” she said.
“Not anymore. What would you say right now if I got the Buick ready and we drove to Reno?”
“And got ourselves a marriage license, some rings, and a honeymoon suite at the Silver Nugget?”
“That’s what I’m thinking. Marry me, Hilda. Be my wife.”
No one knew, since the entire crew had the weekend off, that Hilda married Dusty. And they decided to keep it secret until filming had concluded, just to keep things straight with Mr. Deane. Mr. Deane didn’t care about the flirting and romping in the trailers, but he cared about professionalism and being on time and making sure everyone understood the chain of command. There was Mr. Deane and then there was everybody else.
If only Hilda had understood that simple fact. But even if she had, she would have done the same thing. Bucked the system, then been punished by it. But the punishment. It had been outsized, grandiose, and far crueler than the deed. Hadn’t it? Hilda pulled a Kleenex from her purse. The panelists were adjusting their microphones. Dusty’s microphone squealed and the audience covered their ears. Hilda blew her nose and shook her head. She had paid. Again and again, she had paid for her mistake.
The secretary had marched them to the office. Mr. Deane looked up from his clipboard.
“Now, Dusty Nolan, Hilda Rinehardt. What do the two of you have to say for yourselves?” Hilda looked at Dusty. His chin nearly touched his chest.
“Sir, I’m awfully sorry. I never meant for that animal to die. I didn’t know it was rigged up that way. I’m not that kind of…” Hilda’s face ran with tears.
“I’m not concerned about the horse there, Hilda. What I’m more upset about is that you thought you could be in the stunt. You’re not a man! Hell, even if you were a man, you’re not in the union. I could get big fines here!”
“Sir, I just thought,” she began.
“You didn’t think, and that’s the problem, Hilda,” Mr. Deane said.
“I thought I could do the stunt better than that young fellow. You see, I grew up on a ranch in Wyoming. Been riding my whole life. I know all about it.”
“Enough. Dusty, the real question here is how this could have happened. You’re my best stunt coordinator. You’re one of the best riders. Jesus, you’re one of the best employees here. And I am having a hard time believing Hilda’s story. She told me you permitted her to do this. Is that correct?” The airless office was quiet. Hilda could hear an Indian outside sweeping the patio beneath the awning, the broom’s delicate straw brushing across the concrete pad Mr. Deane always laid down on the set. She turned to Dusty and tried to catch his eye.
“Mr. Deane, it’s not Dusty’s fault. I convinced him I could do it. I knew I could. And it would have worked but for the wires.”
“Enough, Hilda. I’m talking to Dusty. Dusty, did you or did you not permit Hilda to do this stunt?”
“I did not.” There, those were the three words. They hung like heavy wool pants drying on a clothesline, wet with animal sweat and saddle sore. He did not. He did not let her do this unthinkable thing. “She slipped onto the set while I wasn’t looking, and because she’s about the same size as Thomas Bent, I didn’t recognize it was her.”
“That’s not true! Dusty, why are you lying?”
“Ain’t lying. It’s the absolute truth,” Dusty said, his gaze avoiding Hilda’s gaping mouth. Mr. Deane pressed a button on the intercom.
“Ruth, get security. Miss Hilda will be escorted back home. Have the driver take her to Mojave. She can arrange transportation from there. I want her removed as quickly as possible.” Within moments, a black man named Porty had arrived and gently moved Hilda outside. “Sorry, miss,” was all he said.
Porty dropped her off and handed her an envelope with enough cash for the bus fare to Los Angeles. Before backing the company car out of the lot, he gave Hilda a sorrowful look. She waved. She hadn’t even had time to pack her bags and find Dusty. Surely he would come after her. So she waited. The afternoon bus pulled up, but she did not get on it. She knew he was on his way. Dusty would run to her and beg her forgiveness. And she would give it to him. She would give him her affection, and he would find her another job—maybe on the television series he would start on after this picture wrapped up.
Another bus came before sunset, and she did not board.
“You sure, miss? Next bus ain’t until tomorrow same time,” the driver said. She shook her head. “Suit yourself,” the man said. And she had. She waited all night in the cold bus shelter, and when it was past one o’clock in the morning, she began praying. At dawn, she rose from the bench to find a cup of coffee at the diner next door. She hitched a ride back to Los Angeles with a family.
Back in Hollywood, she threw herself into auditions. Each time it was the same. After she finished reading, an assistant would lean and whisper into the director’s ear. Once, she heard the words “expelled by Deane.” He had told every director about her. She couldn’t even get a job as the toothpaste girl on a quiz show.
The picture would have made Hilda a star. It enjoyed the biggest budget of any Western ever made with all the big names—Stewart, Marvin, a young Eastwood, Grant. It would be filmed in Cinerama, a new technology for large theaters featuring interlocking, curved screens so that audiences would feel like they were there under the hot sun, riding hard, and chasing Indians between the rocky outcroppings of the Alabama Hills. You’d feel so close to the action that you could practically taste the dust from the horse in front of you.
“You’re not really a leading lady, Hilda,” Mr. Deane had told her. His first words. “Not in this picture. Maybe never. Not your strong suit.”
“So what am I, then?”
“Yeah, kind of a comic character. Minstrel, prostitute, something low like that. Will make the audience laugh. But not a leading lady, no, I wouldn’t describe it that way.”
“That’s the way you described it to my agent.”
“That was his interpretation.”
“He told me you were looking for a woman who was feminine but tough, who could ride, hold a shotgun, bare a little cleavage, serve as a love interest, but also show a firm pioneer exterior. Nothing about being a prostitute or singer.”
“Mr. Deane, you’re belittling me.”
“Look, Hilda, if you don’t want the part, I got fifty women who do.”
“Well, I’m here and ready to work. I’ll do it. But next time, you tell my agent what you’re really looking for. If it’s a hooker you want, it’s a hooker you’ll get.”
“I don’t want a hooker. You play it that way and you’re fired.”
“But you just said you wanted a prostitute.”
“Hilda, you got to understand. Whenever I bring the girl in, I got to make sure things don’t come to a terrible stop. Because that’s a tendency in Westerns, in any action picture. The girl is a bore.” Mr. Deane turned, shouted to an assistant for another cup of black coffee, and waved Hilda away.
The scene had been planned from every angle, marked up, walked through, and then ridden with the horses carefully, ploddingly gentle, haltingly, so that no horse was spooked. But when filming started, Dusty knew he was in for the biggest stunt of his life at $1,000 an hour for the wranglers, cameras, and dynamite.
At the tack barn before the scene, Dusty had supervised the preparations. More than once, he walked up to a wrangler who had whispered, “Can’t be done,” under his breath. “We’ll do it,” Dusty had said. “You’ll break the animal’s neck,” the wrangler said. “No, I won’t. Now enough of that,” Dusty had said and spat on the ground, narrowly missing the wrangler’s boots.
Hilda’s horse had its feet wired, and the wires were run up through the saddle and out. The horse was to get up a good run, and then the wrangler would jerk the wires and pull the horse’s front feet out from under him.
She went over as planned, unhurt. But the horse didn’t make it. He broke his neck. Dead at the end of the take. One stuntman fractured his pelvis. But the take was a good one and, as Dusty promised, it only had to be done the once.
The moderator asks the audience for questions. Hilda stands up.
“I had the fantasy of becoming the first stuntwoman in the union,” she began. “I forced my way into a stunt and I let it ruin my life.” The reporter from the Times wheeled around in his chair. The moderator looked up from his notepad.
“What’s your name, then?”
“Hilda,” she said.
“Are you Hilda Rinehardt? The actress fired by Farrington Deane for insubordination? I’ve been wondering for years where you went!” the reporter said. Hilda smiled, brushed a wisp of hair from her eyes, and bit her bottom lip.
“Been in Canada this whole time. A friend told me about this festival. I saw Dusty was here. So I came.” Dusty grabbed at his breast pocket for a kerchief. He dabbed at his eyes and wiped his brow.
“All these years later, what do you think about that day you were fired?” the reporter asked.
“It wasn’t very bright on my part. I was very naïve. It was the last shot of the day. Mr. Deane was absolutely furious. The result was that I was banned from the set and fired. It was devastating to me. It haunted me for the rest of my life. I hadn’t even started my career.” She stared at Dusty. “I also lost my husband that day. He never came for me.”
“Yes, I did,” Dusty said. The reporter looked at Dusty and back at Hilda.
“You two were married?”
“Still are,” said Dusty. The moderator fumbled with the soundboard and shut the microphones off. He rose and clapped his hands.
“Let’s give our panelists a round of applause!” The reporter rushed to Hilda’s side. Dusty stood, removed his hat, and held it over his chest. Hilda began walking down the aisle. By the time she reached him, tears rolled down her cheeks.
“I looked for you for so long, Hilda,” Dusty said. “Even hired a private detective. He couldn’t get any information out of anybody. One clue led him to Mexico. I paid him a lot of money, and all I got was a bottle of tequila.” He pulled her close.
“I didn’t want you to find me,” she said.
“I couldn’t face you.”
“I don’t blame you,” Dusty said.
The reporter shouted, “Mr. Nolan, Miss Rinehardt, a photo please?”
“I changed my name and hitched to Vancouver. Been there ever since,” she said. “I’m a retired math teacher.”
“Got a family?”
“No, just a dead husband. When he passed away last June, I thought I ought to find you again.”
“And here I am. I suppose you want an apology?” said Dusty.
“Let’s hop in my truck. I’ll take you for a ride.” The reporter and the rest of the audience watched as Hilda and Dusty walked out into the cool October morning.
“Still got that pretty lower lip, Hilda.”
“I still got a lot of things.”
“I’m sure you do.” He noticed her lustrous fistfuls of hair and the long eyelashes.
“You lose weight, Dusty?”
“Yes, getting old. Don’t jump from moving trains and horses anymore.”
“Don’t look old to me.”
“You don’t look a day older than when I met you.” Dusty drove out Whitney Portal to Movie Flat Road, silent as he maneuvered around piles of rounded, shapely granite boulders brushed and refined by snow and wind. He stopped from time to time to point out the site of scenes he shot with her. When they arrived on the wide expanse of sandy plateau where the stunt had gone so horribly wrong four decades ago, he shut the engine off.
“What I did was cowardly and inexcusable. Selfish, malicious. Would you even consider an apology?” Dusty asked. Hilda looked down at the floorboards of the Dodge pickup. After several moments, she merely nodded.
“Good, good,” he said and patted her on the knee. He wanted to say more than that, but the frog in his throat and his running nose prevented it. He blew his nose into his kerchief and then drove back into town, parking in front of the Pine Café. He suggested the biscuit and gravy special and Hilda nodded again.
After ordering, Dusty said, “Do you think what was lost can be regained?”
“You mean, can we have a happy ending? This isn’t Hollywood, Dusty.” He lifted the coffee mug to his lips. He did not know what to say. And when words hid from him, he heeded their power. He looked at Hilda, his eyes glassy.
“I just mean that I don’t care about happy endings. Right now, the only thing I care about is beginnings,” Hilda said. Words scarce and yet heavy all around him, Dusty began to cry.
“Do I deserve it?” he asked.
“Not a question of deserving,” Hilda said. “I forgave you a long time ago.”
“When you got married and moved on up to Canada?”
“No, when I waited for the bus back to Los Angeles, right after Farrington Deane fired me.”
“I don’t hold grudges.”
Dusty reached for Hilda’s hands across the Formica tabletop.
“I don’t know what to say, girl. You knocked me off my feet then. Doing it now too. With you in the picture, I am the luckiest man in the Owens Valley. Hell, the world.”
“So the girl stays in the picture?” Hilda laughed. The waitress asked if they required anything else.
Dusty rose, kissed the waitress’s hand, and placed a big bill into her palm. “Thanks, we got everything we need.”
Kristine Zeigler holds a bachelor’s degree in art from Lafayette College and has spent the past sixteen years as a professional fundraiser for the environment and conservation. Kristine’s previous publication credits include The Bark, The Peregrine, Forge Journal, The Saint Ann’s Review, Storyteller Magazine and Harvard University’s Charles River Review. When Kristine is not writing or fundraising, she is using her private pilot’s license to see nature from above.