Part 2 - Chapter 13 - Recon in the Desert

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Denholm and I had started our journey from the Four Diamonds ranch just before sunup. It took us all day to get to our destination. We traveled from New Mexico through the Four Corners and into Utah. Just south of the town of Blanding, we turned off the main road onto a two-track marked only with a sign bearing the initials BH for Ben Hur.

The studio stressed to us the importance of secrecy for the location of the set. They chose this remote location because of its limited access and because it closely resembled the location of the original chariot arena.

I checked the time and saw that we had about three hours of daylight left. Denholm and I set out to see who was around.

We strolled through a barrier of trailers arranged like circled wagons defending from an Indian attack. Beyond the trailers, a couple of picnic tables were setup end to end. A small crowd of men at the tables had their attention focused on a guy, his foot up on the bench and talking up a storm. Brett Slade.

A white-haired lady wearing an apron cooked burgers and hot dogs on a grill.

Brett stopped speaking and looked our way. "B.G., my main man!" He lumbered toward me arms outstretched and enveloped me in a man hug. "Hey, everyone, this is my favorite bodyguard and his boss, uh, what's your name again?"

"Sir Denholm Stewart at your service."

"Right. Hey, B.G., when are you going to fill out. Look at you all skin and bones. Now, look at me, the essence of manliness." He focused on the lady at the grille. "Billie, get this boy a burger before he wastes away."

"Geez, Brett, maybe you've had too many burgers. I think I see the start of a paunch. Are you letting yourself go?"

Brett's eyes went wide, and I detected anxiety in them. He glanced at his stomach and laid a hand on his abdomen. "Don't even joke about something like that." Then he laughed and pointed at me while addressing the others gathered around. "I love this man, he's absolutely fearless. What cojones this one has, eh?"

Nobody said anything.

"Let me introduce you to the crew," Brett went on. "The lovely lady at the grill is Billie Rubin. She's the studio animal handler but is also gracious enough to keep the crew fed."

Billie pointed the barbecue fork at Brett. "I only agreed to work the grill tonight. Someone else can take over tomorrow."

Brett raised his hands in surrender. "The rest of these guys are the advance team tasked with planning and site preparation. In a week or two, the regular crew of men and woman will arrive and begin construction in earnest." He went around the table naming each of them.

"What's wrong with regular studio security? Why do you need these two?" one of the men grumbled. "Those men and women are a proven and tight bunch."

"No disrespect to studio security," Brett answered, "but the insurance company underwriting this film mandates that I have personal protection at all times. After all, I am Brett Slade, by god. The entire project would fall apart if something were to happen to me. I mean look at me, look at this handsome, baby face. I could pass for eighteen instead of twenty-four—"

"—You're twenty-eight," I corrected him.

He waved me off. "Yeah, yeah, a minor detail. Anyway, I'm the box office draw that's gonna make everyone forget the original guy who played Ben Hur—"

"—You're comparing yourself to the great Charlton Heston?"

"Quit interrupting me, B.G., my point is that I am the studio's top money maker. I'm the one who can carry any picture just by having my name in the credits. Face it everyone, I am the franchise."

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