Even from such a distance Fine Man could smell their camp, the
fried-pig stink of white men. He took up a pinch of dirt, placed it under
his tongue, and made a prayer. Keep me close, Mother Earth, hide me,
Mother Earth. It was light as day, the moon's bright face a trader's
steel mirror, the grey leaves of the sage and wolf willow shining silver,
as if coated with hoarfrost. Under a full moon, it was dangerous to
steal horses--even from foolish white men.
One of the wolfers rose from his blanket and stepped away from
the fire. The one with the ugly hair, red like a fox's, he stood making
his water and talking over his shoulder. A noisy man lacking in dignity.
It must be a poor thing to be a wolf-poisoner, to be ugly, to eat pork, to
hate silence. There was nothing to envy these people for, except their
guns and horses.
The red-haired one rolled himself back up in his blanket and lay like
a log beside the fire. "Say goodnight to Jesus," said one of the other
men wrapped in blankets. They all laughed. More noise.
Fine Man felt Broken Horn's body relax beside him and knew Horn
had been covering Red Hair with the "fukes," a sawed-off Hudson's
Bay musket, the only gun they carried between them. Broken Horn
was edgy. Fine Man sensed Horn no longer believed in the promises
and the truth of his dream.
In his dream, there was heavy snow, biting cold. Many starving,
shivering horses, coats white with frost, had come stumbling through
the high drifts to crowd the entrance of Fine Man's lodge. There the
grass of spring pushed up sweet green blades through the crust of the
snow, tenderness piercing ice, and gave itself to strengthen the horses,
even though it was the black months of winter. Fine Man read this as
a power sign that somewhere there were horses wishing to belong to
the Assiniboine. But Broken Horn did not trust Fine Man's sign any
more, and Fine Man did not trust Horn with a gun in his hand.
Suddenly the white men's horses began to mill about, hopping in
their hobbles like jack-rabbits. Powdery dust rose like mist, to hang
swirling and shaking in the moonlight. Fine Man shifted his eyes to the
fire. But none of the lumps under the greasy grey blankets raised a
head, their ears were deaf. How did white men distinguish their
corpses from those who had only gone to sleep?
The herd broke apart, horses turning and spinning, bumping one
another like pans of ice in the grip of a swift current. A moment of
complete confusion, rumps and heads bucking above the dust, then the
strong current found a shape and stood alone, a big blue roan, broken
hobbles dangling from its forelegs, teeth bared, ears laid back.
Lit by the moon, the roan was stained a faint blue, the colour of
late-winter-afternoon shadows on crusted snow. Coat smooth as ice,
chest and haunches hard as ice, eyes cold as ice, a Nez Perce horse
from beyond the mountains which wore snow on their heads all the
year round, a horse from behind the Backbone of the World.
When he saw him, Fine Man knew the promise of the dream was
true and he rose from behind the juniper bush to show himself plain to
the winter horse. Broken Horn's sharp intake of breath through the
teeth was a warning, but Fine Man gave no indication he heard him, his
ears were stopped to any sound except the singing inside him, the
power chanting in him. He stood upright in the moonlight, upright in his
Thunderbird moccasins with the beaded Bird green on each foot,
upright in the breechclout his Sits-Beside-Him wife had cut from the
striped Hudson's Bay blanket. He gazed down at his hands, at the skin
of his muscled thighs, at his belly, and understood. White moonlight
was his blizzard, a blizzard to blind the eyes of his enemies
who lay frozen to the ground in the grip of his medicine-dream, drifted
over by the heavy snow of sleep.
He edged toward the horse, addressing him in a soft voice, politely.
Fifty yards to his left, the fire was rustling, hot embers cracking like
nuts, spitting like fat. Behind him, Horn lifted himself to one knee,
swiftly spiking three arrows in the ground near where his bow lay, and
aimed the fukes at the sleeping body of a wolfer.
"Little Cousin," said Fine Man in a soothing voice, "Little Cousin, do
not be afraid. Don't you recognize me? I am the man you dreamed, the
man with the lodge of plenty. I am the man you led your brothers to."
He stopped for a moment. "Take a good look at me. There is no harm
in my hands," he murmured, displaying empty palms to the roan.
Turning and pointing to Broken Horn, crouched with his musket
levelled at the sleeping white man, he said, "That man there came with
me to find you. Some of your brothers may choose to live with him--if
they so decide. It is for them to choose." He stepped forward lightly,
words rustling lightly. "Cousin, you are a beautiful being. I do not say
this to flatter you. The white man rides you with steel spurs and a steel
bit in your mouth. This is not how to sit upon a beautiful being--with
cruelty." They were face to face now, he and the blue roan. He
removed his left moccasin, the moccasin of the heart side. "Feel,
Cousin, there is no harm upon my feet," he said, reaching up carefully
to gently stroke the roan's nose with the moccasin. He pursed his lips
and blew softly into the left nostril of the horse, who snorted Fine
Man's breath back in surprise, shaking his head from side to side.
"Now you know there is no harm in my heart. Now you know that
I am the good man who you dreamed. Tell your brothers," Fine Man
Broken Horn was signalling him desperately to come now, leave
this place, clear out, but Fine Man was making his way carefully and
deliberately from horse to horse, showing each his knife before
severing the hobbles. When he finished, he returned to the blue roan,
stood at its withers, took a fistful of mane and walked it away, his legs
matching its forelegs stride for stride. Hesitantly, the other horses
followed the man and the blue roan, nineteen horses strung out in a
winding procession through buck-brush and sage, black shadows stark
on the ground, edges sharp as a knife-cut.
Without haste, they picked their way across the river bottom and to
the feet of steep, eroded hills which, washed in the cold light of the
moon, became reflections of moon's own face, old and worn and
pocked and bright. Fine Man led the blue horse up the first hump of hill,
the others filing behind, hooves daintily ticking on loose stones, gravel
cascading loose and running with a dry sigh down the slope. He
paused, his hands resting on the blue roan's withers; the string of horses
paused too. Below, Fine Man could see an elbow of the Teton River
poking through the cottonwoods and the tongues of the white man's fire
darting, licking the dark. A sudden breeze sprang up and fanned his
face, luffing the mane of the blue horse, stroking and ruffling the
surface of the water so it flashed and winked in the moonlight like the
scales of a leaping fish.
He and the blue horse began their descent then, down into the belly
of a narrow coulee twisting through the scarred and crumbling hills.
The other horses trickled down the slope after them, filling the coulee
as water fills the bed of a river. One by one they dropped from sight,
tails switching, heads bobbing, ghostly gleaming horses running back
into the earth like shining, strengthening water.
The fire died amid the charred sticks, the moon grew pale. The
stream of horses flowed north to Canada.
I typed four names. Damon Ira Chance. Denis Fitzsimmons. Rachel
Gold. Shorty McAdoo. I sat and stared at these names for some
minutes, then I typed a fifth, my own. Harry Vincent.
I did not know how to continue. It's true that once I was a writer of
a sort, but for thirty years I've written nothing longer than a grocery
list, a letter. I went to the window. From there I could see the South
Saskatchewan River, the frozen jigsaw pieces bumping sluggishly
downstream, the cold, black water steaming between them. A month
ago, when the ice still held, a stranger to this city would have had no
idea which way the river ran. But now the movement of the knotted
ice, of the swirling debris, makes it plain.
So begin, I told myself.
History is calling it a day. Roman legionaries tramp the street
accompanied by Joseph and Mary, while a hired nurse in cap and
uniform totes the Baby Jesus. Ladies-in-waiting from the court of the
Virgin Queen trail the Holy Family, tits cinched flat under Elizabethan
bodices sheer as the face of a cliff. A flock of parrot-plumed Aztecs
are hard on their heels. Last of all, three frostbitten veterans of Valley
Forge drag flintlocks on the asphalt roadway.
This is nearly thirty years ago, 1923 to be exact, and I am a young
man standing at a second-storey window in the script department of
Best Chance Pictures watching extras drift by in a yellow
light creeping towards dusk--shooting suspended for the day. I am
waiting for a man by the name of Fitzsimmons, waiting anxiously
because a visit from Fitzsimmons is not to be taken lightly. Returning
from lunch today I found this terse message on my desk.
Dear Mr. Vincent,
Please be so kind as to wait upon Mr. Fitzsimmons at the
close of office hours this day.
Damon Ira Chance
The office cleared out two hours ago and there is still no sign of
Fitzsimmons. Even though I suspect the possibility of a practical joke, I
stay put. For one thing, the letterhead (reading "Office of the President
and Chairman") appears genuine. I don't intend to jeopardize a
seventy-five-dollar-a-week job, not with the expense of keeping my
mother in the Mount of Olives Rest Home.
History having disappeared from sight, my gaze turns to the jumbled
vista of the studio lot, twenty-five acres of offices, workshops, streets
of every kind--French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Wild Western.
What I can't see from my window, I know, having walked through it
All of this make-believe is held in quarantine by a ten-foot fence
and a gate which trumpets in black iron scrollwork: Best Chance
Pictures. When I first came to work here eighteen months ago the
gate trumpeted Zenith Pictures, but then Damon Ira Chance bought it
from Mr. Adilman and the name changed, along with a number of
From the beginning, Damon Ira Chance was an enigma. Nobody
knew anything about him. People assumed that the surname Chance
had been adopted for the sake of the ringing phrase, Best Chance
Pictures. If Samuel Goldwyn could steal a name for business reasons,
what was stopping anybody else? Then one of the trade papers
published a story identifying Damon Ira Chance as the son of Titus
Chance. For over forty years Titus Chance's name had been
mentioned in the same breath with the likes of Carnegie, Gould,
Rockefeller, Morgan, and Mellon. Although not quite as rich as these
plutocrats, his wealth was considerable, very considerable. During the
Civil War the family textile mills had made a bundle supplying uniforms
to the Federals, and when peace came, Titus Chance shrewdly
reinvested war profits in oil, steel, railroads, banking. The old man
survived well into the new century and at his death his money had
passed to his only child, Damon Ira, an obscure figure, a middle-aged
Henry James character who had spent most of his life living abroad in
Europe. Unlike a Henry James character, however, Damon Ira
Chance promptly took a large part of his inheritance and bought a
movie company with it.
It is on this man's orders that I am waiting for Denis Fitzsimmons in
my dog-kennel office. There's not much to amuse me here, a desk, a
typewriter, a coffee can full of pencils, a three-shelf bookcase holding
Dreiser, Crane, Norris, London, and back numbers of The Smart Set,
which my friend Rachel Gold browbeat me into subscribing to because
it is edited by her idol, H.L. Mencken.
Rachel has an office just a short way down the corridor, a much
more magnificent office befitting a head writer. In it there is a long
table for writing, a six-shelf bookcase, many ashtray stands, a cabinet
with a broken lock holding bottles of bathtub gin, and a big sofa for
thinking and napping on.
I tell myself five more minutes and then I'll leave. Five minutes pass
and then another five. As it grows dark outside, I see myself in the
windowpane, a tall, thin, gangly, big-nosed, big-eared young man
nervously smoking and fidgeting with his wire-rimmed spectacles. A
very ordinary, common young man whose only uncommon feature
can't be detected in the glass at the moment. My limp.
I sit as minutes become hours, checking my watch, chain-smoking
cigarettes. Then, sometime after ten, I hear a car pull up, followed by
the creak of the stairs which lead up to the gallery that runs round the
offices on the second floor, finally the tread of heavy feet outside my
office door. Suddenly, Fitzsimmons is here, looming in the doorway
without having bothered to knock. Six feet four, maybe two
hundred and seventy pounds, he stands there breathing heavily through
an open mouth, all bulging shoulders, barrel chest, tree-trunk legs
threatening to burst the stitches on an expensively tailored
double-breasted suit. Seen up close, the meaty florid face breaks down
into a riverine system of tiny red veins and spidery tributaries, a knob
of mashed nose, a large, froggish mouth spiked with the kind of tiny
baby teeth that belong to a six-year-old.
He draws a couple of wheezy breaths and says, "I got held up.
Business." Then he takes out a handkerchief and begins to mop his
sweating face, his cranium of closely cropped hairs, orangey-red like
the pelt of an orangutan. "Some fucking paradise, this California.
Never had so many fucking colds in my life." He blows his nose into
"Drink orange juice," I say. "It's supposed to be good for whatever
Fitzsimmons's eyes scan my office; he doesn't look at me. "If it
isn't colds, it's the fucking clap. All these actresses got a dose of the
clap. You telling me orange juice will cure the clap?"
I'm not about to tell this man anything.
"If it would fix the clap I'd ship a couple of boxcars back East. I got
plenty of friends in New York could make use of it." He laughs, a
strange laugh that grates and pops explosively, like gravel being ground
in the jaws of an adamantine mill. He stops all at once, as if he has
forgotten why he's amused. "Let's go," he says.
I follow him down the stairs, his bulk rolling like a storm cloud. We
get into the waiting Hispano-Suiza and drive off. Aside from the sound
of Fitzsimmons sucking his teeth, we wind through deserted streets in
silence. Contrary to what you might expect, in the early twenties
Hollywood was a ghost town after dark. For the original inhabitants,
mostly retirees from the Midwest, a high old time might consist of a
game of gin rummy, cranking your own ice-cream maker. The film
colony was not much livelier. Most movies were filmed in natural light
and that meant rising at dawn and shooting until dusk so as not to
waste precious hours of sunshine. Early to bed and early to rise. Even
as we pass down Hollywood Boulevard I can see that all
the stools at a lunch counter are empty, a lonely waitress staring out
the window at our big car as it rolls by.
When I finally summon the courage to ask Fitzsimmons where he
is taking me, all he says is, "To see Mr. Chance."
This is a very big surprise. Nobody, or almost nobody, ever gets an
audience with Chance. In the nine months since acquiring Zenith, he
has earned the reputation of being a recluse, Photoplay dubbing him
the Hermit of Hollywood. At his own studio he is merely a rumoured
presence, rarely if ever seen. Now and then someone catches a
glimpse of him standing at his office window on the third floor of the
administration building, then the Venetian blinds snap shut and he is
swallowed up from view. On very special occasions, some of the
Hollywood aristocracy, a great star, or important director are
summoned to his sanctum sanctorum for tea and cake, a decorous
private audience. This is not the usual Hollywood practice; all the rest
of the studio bosses are hands-on men, a presence on the lot. At
Universal, Carl Laemmle is known as Uncle Carl, a chipper gnome
who chats with property men, grips, electricians, stars, and directors
alike. Louis B. Mayer is a man incapable of passing a pie without
sticking a finger in it. He shows directors how to direct and gives
acting lessons to great stars. Fall over and die like this. Roll your eyes
like this when you drop. And lemme see the whites. Often he breaks
down in tears, moved by the brilliance of his own performance. "The
D.W. Griffith of actors" they call him at Metro, but only behind his
back because Louis B. Mayer hits people. The illustrious list of people
he has socked includes Erich von Stroheim and Charlie Chaplin.
But Mayer's is not Chance's style. He is aloof, patrician, resented.
In nearly a year, the closest I have got to my boss is at his single
recorded public appearance, the premiere of his first production. I had
been the rewrite man for titles on The Orphan Maid and was vain
enough to attend the picture's opening to see just how much of my
work survived final cutting.
I was having a cigarette outside the theatre when the plum
Hispano-Suiza I am now riding in drew to the curb and Chance and
Fitzsimmons stepped out. Pandemonium broke out. Flashbulbs
erupted. Reporters and cameramen began to jostle and shout, "Look
this way, Mr. Damon!" "Hey, Hermit!" "Cheese please, Mr. Chance!"
There he stood, a bewildered little man, weak eyes blinking, his
thinning, wispy hair appearing to stand on end as the camera flashes
throbbed epileptically on his starched shirt front and pale, stricken
face. With reporters and cameramen nipping at his flanks, he looked
like a penguin set upon by savage dogs, panicky, defenceless.
And then Fitzsimmons seized him by the elbow and started to thrust
his way through newspapermen, to violently hack a path through the
mob to the lobby. There were yelps and curses as the big Irishman
shouldered people aside, trampled on their toes. I saw him slap a
camera out of someone's hand, heard it smash on the pavement. In
seconds, the two were safe inside. Meanwhile, the disgruntled press
swore and milled about on the sidewalk. Who the fuck does that big
ape think he is anyway, pushing me? I got a press card. Nobody but a
cop pushes a press card around. I'll put the fix in on this picture. I'll get
his picture a write-up he won't soon forget.
Damon Ira Chance did not forget. The Orphan Maid would be his
last premiere for a very long time.
Nobody can quite figure the relationship between Chance and
Fitzsimmons. It is an inexhaustible topic of speculation. Rachel Gold
describes them as Jekyll and Hyde; fold their personalities together and
you have Louis B. Mayer. It is her theory that Chance is the
sentimental Louis B. dreaming pictures in his tower, while Fitzsimmons
is the violent and ruthless Louis B. who hits and threatens people.
Together, she claims, they might possibly make one successful movie
She may be right. There's no doubt Fitz frightens people. He is the
trouble-shooter, the hands-on man at Best Chance Pictures who relays
orders from on high, hustles technicians, reads the riot act to stars and
directors. He need only walk onto a set, expensive brogues creaking
ominously, and a fearful hush descends. I'll never forget the day he
took the director Bysshe Folkestone aside, one big arm laid across
his shoulders like a cross, walking him from the eighteenth-century
Devonshire cottage where Folkestone was shooting to a tract of the
Sinai on a nearby set. We all stood watching from a distance. It was
like a silent movie without subtitles and musical accompaniment. After
a few words from Fitz, Bysshe started to wave his arms; his face, in
turn, registering outrage, innocence, perplexity, while all around the
two of them work continued, trucks dumping sand and workmen with
shovels and rakes scrambling frantically to mould desert dunes to
recreate ancient Egypt.
Bysshe kept talking and Fitz kept refusing to look at him.
Fitzsimmons stood trickling sand from one enormous hand to another,
back and forth, back and forth, eyes riveted on the stream sifting down
from his fist. And Folkestone ran on too, unwilling to see that the big
Irish egg-timer was measuring how long it took for him to cook. After
three or four minutes, Folkestone realized Fitz wasn't listening and
began to run down like a wind-up toy. His once emphatic and
confident gestures became uncertain and tentative. In the end he
shrugged half-heartedly; his arms fell to his sides; he fell silent.
Fitz began to dust the sand from his palms, still without looking at
Bysshe, contemptuously, one hand slowly wiping the other. Folkestone
stood waiting. The cleaning of the hands went on and on. Even at a
distance, from where we stood, you could feel the cold cruelty of this
pantomime. Nobody could have stood it for long. The meaning was
Folkestone broke away and began to stumble out of the desert,
sinking to his ankles in the sand. Lurching out of Egypt and into
Devonshire he kept going, sand leaking out of his pant cuffs on to the
paper turf. We all suddenly became enormously interested in our
cameras, our clipboards, our costumes. Fleeing around the corner of
the papier-mache stone cottage, Folkestone groped blindly for some
support and brushed a painted canvas backdrop, shaking a slight
disturbance into a mild English sky.
The next day a new director was at work.