A High, Hard Land
Jeannie tried to keep her gaze trained on Quaid’s face. It was the only way to combat her nervousness. Each time her eyes slid a degree or two to the left or the right of those rugged planes she knew so well, her concentration was destroyed. She had to erase everything from her mind except the face she’d loved since girlhood and get on with what had to be done, and done as well as she possibly could do it.
She stared down at the worn roughed-out suede boots on her feet planted directly in front of Quaid’s spit-shined Tony Lamas and drew in several deep, calming breaths to compose herself. Quaid’s strong, sure hands went to her shoulders to help her steady herself. It was just the touch she needed. All her doubts and apprehensions fell away. She knew once more exactly who she was and what the situation was.
She was Jeannie Duncan, born September 5, 1930, on
the small, remote New Mexico ranch she’d inherited when her father had died the previous year. And she loved Quaid Dawson. Had loved him ever since she’d first seen him ten years ago dancing his horse through a brilliant rodeo spotlight, doing fancy roping tricks. Since then he’d ridden in and out of her life more times than she could count. And each time he seemed to tear away a larger chunk of her heart to take with him as he followed his wanderlust to the next county, the next state, the next country—to the next rodeo always farther and farther away.
Well, she thought, she had the power now to keep him anchored to her. He himself had given her that power in a magic night of lovemaking. Even as they stood there, his strong hands on her trembling shoulders, a child grew within her. Quaid’s child. A child that would be born in 1950. Jeannie liked that. Liked the fact that the world would be half done with the century when her baby came. It was a good sign. All that remained was for her to tell Quaid that in less than seven months’ time he would be a father, and he would not leave her. Or so she hoped. What was making her nervous was thinking of all the times she’d heard Quaid scorn the ordinary life she cherished. How he pitied all the poor fools who spent their lives stuck on one dreary plot of land while he, he was free to roam the earth.
But surely, Jeannie reassured herself, surely that would change with a baby. The sun was just beginning to set. This would not be the night of farewell and parting
that was the start of another long, lonely rodeo season that would take Quaid from her. It would be the beginning of their life together.
His hands moved up from Jeannie’s shoulders, cradling her jaw and forcing her to look up into his face. Behind him was the immense, rapidly darkening New Mexico sky, which opened up so magnificently above the high mesa they stood on. It was their special spot. They had ridden up to it tonight, Quaid thinking they would be parting, Jeannie adrift with plans for the future they would share. She stared deep into his eyes as if they were pools she wanted to drown in. He felt her distress.
“Darlin’,” he drawled, in the rumbly baritone that could still send shudders of excitement skittering up her spine, “I’ve got to be moving on. I hope the season’ll be short and I can get back to help you with roundup in the fall.”
“You say that every year,” Jeannie said softly. “And every year the season keeps getting longer. You know I never see you before the snow starts to blowing.”
A flicker of guilt shot through Quaid’s eyes at the accusation. He was the one who decided how long the season was, and he could never make himself quit until the spotlight had dimmed at every rodeo on the circuit. Still, even with the stinging words of reproach fresh upon them, Quaid could not resist the plump temptation of Jeannie’s lips. She tried to pull away from him, but he held her firm in his grip until his mouth found hers and overcame her with the sweetness of his kiss.
This was the moment. Jeannie knew it would never come again. With their mouths fused in a recollection of the passion that had sired the child she carried within her, Jeannie took Quaid’s hand in hers. She placed his warm palm against her belly, against the spot where their child slept. Quaid pulled his mouth from hers, his hand still spanning her womb.
Jeannie’s heart stopped as she slowly raised her eyes to meet his. It almost didn’t start again when she saw the expression on Quaid’s face. In her fondest fantasies, she had imagined him melting with solicitous tenderness at this moment. Insisting that she lie down. Asking what he could bring her, the mother of his child, and demanding to know what the earliest date was that he could marry her. In her more realistic imaginings, she had figured that Quaid would take the news with bittersweet resignation. More sweet than bitter, though. She had never foreseen the reaction that actually greeted her: stunned disbelief.
Even as the evidence of Quaid’s reaction spread across his handsome features, he began to pull physically away from Jeannie, denying the message she had given him.
Jeannie Duncan had spent a lifetime eking out a spare living on a harsh land. She’d survived a lot: the deaths of her mother and father; years when disease almost wiped out the herd; drought, snow, hail. She had brought calves into the world and seen them off to slaughter. Only nineteen years of such a life could have prepared her to face
Quaid’s rejection and to keep on living. As she looked into his eyes, searching in vain for the love and commitment she’d hoped to find there, her heart broke and re-fused into a hurt and twisted lump that could only barely keep life pumping through her. All within the space of two blinks of an eyelash.
“Jeannie, if you’ve got something to tell me,” Quaid warned, “you’d better come right out with it because I’ve got to be getting on down the road.”
Getting on down the road. The words rang brutally in Jeannie’s mind. To Quaid they stood for the freedom of a never-ending trail of possibilities. To her they represented a prison of loneliness in which she would have to bear and raise her child all alone. She knew that Quaid was giving her the chance to say straight out what he already knew. But Jeannie would never do that. If he was going to force her to say the words “I am carrying your child,” like a judge pronouncing sentence, then she did not want him with her. Her silence was the reprieve Quaid had been waiting for. He backed away from her.
It was April, but in the high desert of northeastern New Mexico that meant very little. As the sun continued to lower, a bitter wind blew through Jeannie’s jacket. She did not feel its chill, however, for she was locked in a place where even cold could no longer reach.
Quaid pulled his horse in close and swung up into the saddle. “Come on, ride back down with me.” He offered her his hand so that she could swing up into the saddle
ahead of him. “We can lead your horse back down.” There was a soft, caring tone in his voice, which was Quaid’s signal that he wanted to talk more. But it was too late, far too late, for Jeannie.
She could not force any words past her choked throat. If she had been able to, she would have told Quaid Dawson to get on down whatever road he felt compelled to follow. To chase his foolish dreams of freedom and never to come back. She didn’t ever want to see him again. Didn’t ever again want to feel the pain that was suffocating her.
“Go” was all she could force out. Just one cold syllable of irrevocable finality. She turned away from Quaid and stared out to the distant spot where the last sliver of sun made a golden pink hump above the horizon.
Quaid looked at her uncertainly, his horse circling in its eagerness to head back down to the bin of hay and grain waiting at the stable.
“Go!” This time Jeannie commanded his departure. All she had left was her dignity, and she vowed to guard that as ferociously as she would guard the child within her. When Quaid didn’t move, she ripped a branch from a stubby juniper tree and switched the horse’s rump, sending it skittering off down the trail. Of course a master horseman like Quaid could have stopped the animal’s flight with ease. But he didn’t. He chose not to, Jeannie reminded herself bitterly. How could she have loved such a man? she wondered as his broad back shrank in the
distance. But the question: how could I love him still? was the one that finally devastated her. That finally unblocked the rage and grief welling within her.
Jeannie sank to her knees, dissolved by the tears she could hold in no longer. Waves of pain washed through her. She grabbed for the one thing that had been constant throughout her life. The one thing that had always been there to comfort her through hardship and death. She grabbed a handful of the earth that had been her father’s and was now hers. It was all she had now in the world. That and her child. A surge of strength shot through her as she promised her unborn child that she would survive. She raised that fistful of dirt up to the sky as if flinging a challenge to the cruel fates that they could cast her down, but they would never break her spirit. A smile of triumph broke across Jeannie’s face.
“Cut! Cut! Cut!” The disgust-laden voice rang out clearly through the mountain air.
Lissa Bauer felt herself brutally ripped from the character of Jeannie Duncan and flung back into the harsh artificiality of moviemaking. The transition was far too abrupt. All those cameramen and lighting people. Jack, the director. Stan, his assistant. Elsie, the script assistant. Jerome, the makeup man. They suddenly seemed like the kind of gore-seeking vultures who stop to gawk at the injured when there’s a car crash. But the worst of all of them was the man who had destroyed the scene, Matthew Briggs, the novelist who had adapted his bestseller,
A High, Hard Land—a novel that had become an international phenomenon—for the screen.
“My God, woman,” Briggs was saying to her, “if you’re going to do Scarlett O’Hara, why don’t you just go all out? ‘There will always be a Tara.’ ” He did a swooning imitation of the heroine of Gone With the Wind, complete with southern accent.
Behind him the director, Jack Myers, was covering his head with both hands and all the technical people were rolling their eyes in pained disbelief. Lissa herself was still too stunned to react. It was only the second day of shooting. She’d been nervous enough about working with Shaun Douglas, the actor playing her lover, Quaid. Shaun Douglas had been her first screen crush and the magic had never dimmed. It might have flickered a little, though, when she’d first met him the day before and discovered that, upon close inspection, the fabled golden locks of Shaun Douglas had distinctly graying brown roots and the secret of the actor’s much-vaunted youthfulness might be told by the fine line of face-lift scars hidden at his hairline.
Just as Lissa was collecting herself to respond, Shaun galloped back up. “Great take, huh?” he asked the director.
“We might be able to salvage parts of it,” Jack answered with an icy glare to Matthew Briggs, who had gone back to his seat and was thumbing through the script, oblivious to the hostility being directed his way by disgruntled crew members who were already starting to set up again to reshoot the scene.
“Parts of the scene?” Shaun echoed, dismounting stiffly and wincing as he landed a bit too hard on the foot he’d had a bunion removed from.
“Parts,” Jack reaffirmed. “Seems Mr. Briggs here”—he swept his hand out in a gesture of mock courtliness to indicate the novelist—“was not happy with the interpretation Lissa was bringing to the role and yelled for a cut.”
“You what?” Shaun asked angrily, turning to Matthew Briggs. Briggs looked up.
“You called for a cut?” the irate actor repeated.
Briggs eyed him calmly for a moment before standing up.
Lissa watched him rise. His movements were deliberate and unhurried. He was not in the least intimidated by the irritation of either an international star or an entire movie crew. His imperviousness to those things fascinated Lissa. She was aware of a tendency, which she fought in herself, to be too eager to please. The annoyed crew on the set stopped chattering as everyone felt the charge of anger leaping between the two men. They were both tall, each a couple of inches over six feet. But even though Shaun Douglas probably outweighed Briggs by a good thirty pounds, Briggs still seemed far more threatening as they squared off. He had a tightly wound energy that made Shaun Douglas seem slack and unfocused. Everything about the man seemed to bristle, Lissa thought, her own irritation vanishing as she watched Briggs spring to the defense of his work. There
was a ferocious intensity about him that Lissa couldn’t help but admire.
“That was a perfect take you mucked up, fellow,” Shaun bellowed with the belligerence of a wounded water buffalo.
Briggs tensed, ready and waiting for Douglas to make his move. The writer’s large features, now animated by a smoldering rage, seemed sharp and aggressive. He had dark, almost black hair that refused to lie flat against his head. He had too little meat on an expansive frame. Bones and hard knots of taut muscle protruded from his jeans and denim jacket.
“It might have been perfect for your chew-up-the-scenery style of acting, Douglas,” the writer answered. “But to anyone who cares about the story behind that scene, the acting stank out loud. Yours as bad as hers.”
Lissa was so absorbed by the force of Matthew Briggs’s intensity that she had forgotten she was at the very center of the drama unfolding in front of her. It was her acting he was cutting to ribbons. All she could think about was how incredible it was that the writer wasn’t cowed by Douglas’s celebrity. Or by much else, it appeared.
“Buddy, you’ve just stepped a little too far over the line here,” Douglas said, letting the Western accent he’d used as Quaid slip back in to drawl out his words. “Now either you apologize or . . .” The actor balled up both his hands into huge fists and leaned back to pull one behind him.
“Or what?” Matthew Briggs sneered. “You’ll hit me? Forget it, Douglas, I’m here to see to it that no pat
Hollywood solutions are inflicted upon my novel. Save the duke-outs for the paying fans. I’m not interested.”
As Briggs turned to leave, however, Douglas unleashed his cocked fist, bringing it around in a wide arc. Briggs caught the motion out of the corner of his eye and ducked away, leaving Douglas to land his haymaker on empty air. Tossing the targetless punch threw the beefy actor off balance. Trying to save himself, he landed hard on his bunionectomy and howled out in sudden pain.
“You see, Douglas,” Matthew Briggs admonished the actor coolly, “Hollywood solutions just don’t work in reality, and if there’s one thing we have to have in this film, it’s reality. Without it we’ll just end up with a sappy, overwrought Western.”
Briggs turned to the crew watching the performance in goggle-eyed amazement. “Now,” he asked them, “none of you wants that, do you?” Heads jerked automatically to answer in the negative.
“What about you?” He turned for the first time to Lissa, who had gone to help Shaun Douglas, letting the actor, wincing in pain, lean on her shoulder.
She glared at the man who had humiliated both her and her costar as his gaze came to rest upon her.
“Is that what you want?” he badgered her.
“Is what what I want?” she demanded tightly. As far as she was concerned, Briggs was rapidly approaching the line that separates an artist defending the integrity of his work from a prima donna having a tantrum.
“Do you want to end up with a typical piece of Hollywood tripe?”
“Of course not,” she sniffed.
“Well then, can I expect you to stop acting like the damned Spritzi Soda Girl?”
In the sudden silence that fell, a muffled giggle was clearly heard. Lissa felt herself go cold with rage. Briggs had indeed crossed the line. Whatever admiration she’d felt for Matthew Briggs for defending his work vanished. His reference to a past she was trying hard to put behind her was both unkind and uncalled for. With all the control she could muster, she turned to Jack and asked, “Will you and Mr. Briggs please come with me to Sidney’s trailer?”
The two men silently followed Lissa to a waiting Jeep and drove to the trailer where the producer of A High, Hard Land was embroiled in a dispute with the local teamsters union. The three entered the trailer as Sidney Feldman screamed, “You thugs are a curse on the film industry!” He then slammed the phone down and reached into his top desk drawer for an antacid tablet. At the sight of his female lead, director and screenwriter, all looking as if their best friend had either just died or would shortly, he grabbed a second tablet and popped them into his mouth.
“Yes, my children,” he said, greeting them with a chalky smile. “What can I do you for?”
Lissa brought herself up to her full five foot four inches and announced calmly, “Either Mr. Briggs is banned from the set or I will be unable to work.” Lissa hadn’t known
until she spoke just what she would say. Once the threat was out, though, she realized it was true. She couldn’t go on being Jeannie in front of a man who jeered her.
“Banned from the set?” Sidney asked, standing up to his full five foot four and leaning across the mammoth desk that took up nearly all the floor space in the trailer. “It’s only the second day of principal photography and you’re talking ‘banned from the set’? You should be talking ‘what a wonderful picture we’re all going to make together.’ You should be talking ‘be my child’s godparent.’ You should not be talking ‘banned from the set.’ ” Throughout his monologue, Sidney, who was as fine an actor as any he’d ever employed, let his voice rise dramatically until it reached a crescendo on his last four words.
When he had captured the attention of all the injured parties, Sidney slumped theatrically back into his chair, playing the put-upon producer to a tee. “Tell me now,” he asked with weary patience, “what is the problem?”
Feeling like three naughty schoolchildren in front of the principal, no one spoke. Lissa finally broke the silence. “Mr. Briggs ruined a perfectly good take because he was unhappy with my performance.”
“Is that true, Matthew?” Sidney asked.
“Partially. If I’d felt the take was ‘perfectly good,’ I wouldn’t have ruined it. It wasn’t. So I did.”
Lissa turned to Matthew Briggs. All the anger was gone from him. He had stated his opinion with such conviction that he’d made it sound as if he were explaining
something terribly obvious and fundamentally irrefutable. His steadfastness unsettled Lissa. In her mind, the memory of her performance began to echo with a hollow, tinny ring. It had none of Matthew Briggs’s resounding conviction.
“So, it’s just that simple, eh?” Sidney interjected with a sigh. Turning to his director, he asked, “Was the take any good, Jack?”
“I don’t think that’s the question,” Lissa interrupted, shaking off the doubts Matthew Briggs had planted. “The question is, why should this, this”—she waved her finger in his direction—“this man be allowed to make that decision?”
“And a very good question it is,” Sidney agreed, shaking his head. “The answer is not so good. The answer has to do with lawyers and deals and other not-so-good things. What it comes down to, Lissa, my love, is that Matthew had one nonnegotiable demand in his contract. Didn’t you, Matt? Would you please tell Lissa what that one demand was and why my hands are now tied?”
Matthew Briggs turned and looked at Lissa Bauer, really looked at her for the first time. Close-up she looked much younger, smaller, more vulnerable than she had under the harsh glare of the artificial lights. She also looked nothing like the annoying Spritzi Soda Girl, her most popular commercial incarnation, in which she’d embodied that product’s effervescent sweetness with a cloying sugariness of her own. Oh, she still looked like
what she was: a movie starlet whose star was rising. She had the requisite mane of tawny curls, the whiter-than-white teeth, the perfectly adorable chip of a nose, the cornflower blue eyes, the figure designed to stir the fantasies of every man who saw her. But, at the moment, all that physical glory was shadowed by something that Matthew Briggs was distinctly surprised to see: hurt. For a moment, his outrage cooled; he had hurt the small woman beside him.
He wobbled for a moment on the verge of apologizing, of retracting everything he had said. Then he remembered the other Jeannie, the real one, the one he had written his novel about, and he knew that he couldn’t take back even one of the hurtful words he had said. To do so would be to betray the real Jeannie, her life and her bravery. If he caved in now, Matthew told himself, he might as well chuck it in and start writing sitcoms for television.
“I am legally entitled to remain on the set,” he finally answered. “It’s in my contract. If I’m banned, the script and my novel go with me.”
“Look, Mr. Briggs,” Lissa said, struggling to keep her voice even. “You may be legally entitled to be on the set, but you have no right to fire off whatever critique happens to spring into your mind.”
For a few brief seconds a battle raged within Matthew Briggs. He honestly did not want to hurt the woman beside him. She had surprised him. It was clear that she was something far different from the vapid screen personality
he had expected. There was a strength in her that drew him. She was most definitely not the Spritzi Soda Girl. He’d miscalculated that much about her and miscalculated it badly.
That was unlike him. He had spent most of his life analyzing people, figuring out what drove them and why. He’d done it even as a boy, long before he’d started writing novels. When he was younger, he’d met each person as an individual, free from any occupational stereotypes. As he’d gotten older and his inventory of acquaintances had grown, he’d come to see the wisdom in stereotypes. He’d found lawyers to be, by and large, careful, meticulous people. Professors were more likely than usual to be absentminded. And actors. Actors had to be the type of people who enjoyed displaying themselves. Of the actors Matthew had known, this turn of the temperament was almost invariably associated with a certain shallowness. That was what he had expected from Lissa. That was not what he was getting.
Like any man, he was not immune to a lovely face or a graceful figure, but he always demanded more. With each word that this confounding starlet spoke, Matthew knew that there was indeed a great deal more to Lissa Bauer. She had a depth that aroused his interest, that intrigued him powerfully, that he wished he were in the position to explore. But he wasn’t. His first obligation had always been, must always be, to his work. That was what, finally, impelled him to speak.
“The critique I fired off did not just ‘happen to spring into my mind,’ ” he answered her levelly, with an earnest voice. He had something important for her, and her alone, to hear.
“My book,” he continued, “is about courage. The courage of one woman to live a hard life in an unforgiving land exactly the way she wants to live it. But it’s a quiet kind of courage. It doesn’t force itself on anyone.”
Lissa felt him struggle to communicate the essence of his work to her. His intensity compelled her to extend herself to him, to reach out for the message he was sending. She nodded and he continued.
“The people of the high plains have to scrape to survive. They can’t allow themselves the luxury of big, showy emotions. Their emotional lives are played out on a subdued, internal stage. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Lissa nodded. She wished she’d flown out earlier to Alta Mesa, New Mexico, where they were filming, so that she could have gotten more of a feel for the land and people. But she had been cast at the last moment and had barely had time to pack and find someone to come in and feed her cat.
“So,” Jack Myers, the director, spoke for the first time. “Everything’s settled. Lissa plays it a little smaller and everyone’s happy, right?”
Matthew turned to Jack with something approaching pain searing his eyes. “That’s exactly the kind of simplistic Hollywood thinking that I’m here to guard against.
Just ‘play it smaller’ and that solves everything? Well, it doesn’t, Mr. Myers. What we should be after here is truth. Isn’t that what art is all about?”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” Sidney interrupted before the director could deliver a snide put-down. “Come on, we’ve got a lot more to agree about than disagree about. You, Jack, I know you loved Matt’s book and his script. It was just what you were looking for. You wanted a change of pace from your usual. Something with a little less emphasis on action and a bit more on character. That was your major incentive for signing on. And you, Matt.” He faced the writer. “You’ve told me you’ve admired Jack’s work in the past. Gain the Earth. A Fine Compulsion. Back for Seconds.” Sidney reeled off a list of some of the director’s better movies, carefully skipping over the car-crash epics that were all Jack had been directing for too long.
“And you, Lissa.” The producer turned to his female lead.
Lissa’s stomach lurched. She knew her reasons for being on the set of A High, Hard Land and didn’t particularly care to have them described in detail. Not in front of Matthew Briggs. Since the days of the Spritzi Soda ads, she had painfully inched her way up the acting ladder, scrambling for the only parts offered to her—ingenues in bawdy teen sex comedies. To date, her entire cinematic career had depended on how she filled out a bathing suit. She knew she hadn’t been anyone’s first choice to play
Jeannie Duncan, the beloved heroine of Briggs’s bestseller. She had groveled for a chance at it; studied with a coach to get the high plains accent down cold. Four times she had tested for the role before it had finally gone to another, slightly better known actress, trying like Lissa to pull herself into the front ranks. Only at the last moment, when the other actress had developed a serious case of mononucleosis, had Lissa been cast as Jeannie Duncan.
Even now, Lissa felt that she was barely hanging on to the role of her life by her fingertips and that Matthew Briggs was threatening even that precarious hold. She certainly did not want her acting career recapitulated in front of him. Sidney, master of diplomacy that he was, realized that and said only, “And you, Lissa, you’re involved in this picture because you want a chance to grow. To stretch a little.”
“Matt.” He turned to the novelist. “With all modesty, you confided to me that I was the reason you signed on.”
“That’s true, Sidney,” Matthew Briggs agreed, his demeanor warming. “The Forgetting Pond was one of the few movies I’ve ever seen in my life that truly had an impact on me,” he said, naming a film that Sidney Feldman had written, produced and directed. “It’s still my all-time favorite.”
“Mine, too,” Lissa added, surprise and the memory of the film overcoming her hostility. “I saw it when I was eleven years old and have never been the same since.” She looked over in amazement at Matthew Briggs. It
was difficult for her to believe that Sidney’s tender story about a lonely black girl growing up during the Depression could have affected him as powerfully as it had her.
“There, you see,” Sidney said, beaming at them, “you two have something in common. You both love me. So go on, get out of here. Go start a Sidney Feldman Fan Club and I’ll send you eight-by-ten glossies. Autographed, no less.”
Reluctantly, Lissa stood. She still had not forgiven Matthew Briggs for his outbursts. Or for his arrogance. Or, and most painfully, for his low opinion of her talent. But she found it hard to completely dislike anyone whose favorite film was The Forgetting Pond. Besides, nothing in her life had ever come easily. She had fought for everything she’d gotten. If she now had to fight to win approval from the man who had created the character she was playing, so be it. Before this movie was in the can, she thought with determination, she’d force Matthew Briggs to admit that she was Jeannie Duncan.