Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Buckskin Brigades - Chapter 10 - Motley's Crew Drops Like a Lead Zeppelin

Last chapter covered what Yellow Hair did at a fur trading post for close to a year, while in "The Ambush," Hubbard spends just as many pages on a single boat ride and action scene.

Robert Motley, a Lord of the Outer Marches entrusted with punishing those who trespass upon the Hudson's Bay Company's crown-given holdings, is boating along the slowly thawing waters of the South Saskatchewan with seven men and a load of furs.  He's the sort of fellow who can remain aloof and forbidding even after being cooped up in a fort all winter with his employees, "Lean, dour and hungry," his skeletal frame wrapped in black clothing makes him look freshly-risen, "shroud and all, from a moldy tomb."

His crew, dressed in ragged buckskins, consists of a young clerk from London, a French-Canadian who defected from the Nor'Westers and was given "a wig (£1-5s) to keep him loyal," and some Orkneymen who fled dismal poverty for a hard life in the American frontier.  Half of such men end up dying from various hazards, "But they feared the brooding black eyes of Robert Motley more than they feared the wilderness, and so they rowed, watching their leader with intent eyes."  The barge powers on, bumping aside floating bits of ice while avoiding snags and low-hanging branches, Motley's dark gaze sweeping the shore for any movement or signs of danger.

Again, compare all the rich detail and effort spent laying out this scene with what the author had to say last chapter about our hero's experiences over nine friggin' months. 

Unfortunately for Motley, his eye just isn't good enough, and McGlincy's men are just too sneaky.  They're in position around a bend, rifles aimed at where the barge will inevitably appear, with all the discipline and skill we've come to expect from... these drunkards and dregs of society.  Er.

The range was something less than thirty feet.

The volley crashed.

With a scream the clerk clapped his hands to his throat, blood gushing out through his fingers.  He toppled backward into the river.

The oars caught against the collapsed bodies of three dead Orkneymen and dug deeply under the green surface.

Motley jumped erect and tried to steer back toward the channel but the dragging sweeps had already turned the boat straight into the cloud of powder smoke that now hung over the bank.

Once again, this doesn't feel like a proper Hubbard Action Sequence.  There's no exclamation, and the combat isn't unbelievable.  Nobody's thrown a bear-sized alien over their shoulder or done a backflip over an attacker.  Maybe things would be different if the story's hero was around for it.

Motley tries to turn the boat around and run, but the dead rowers have aimed the prow at the riverbank now covered with gunsmoke, so with a "despairing glance" at his load of furs he gives the order to go overboard just as arrows start to thump into the boat.  We don't get a description of the hellish shock of plunging into the icy water, the struggle to breathe, much less swim, when Motley's entire body tries to seize up from cold.  We're just told that when he crawls out of the water he's "chilled and cramped."

The... what's his rank?  "Lord of the Outer Marches" is kinda long-winded, but the narration never just calls him "Lord Motley" either.   Whatever he is, he helps his two surviving men take cover under a willow tree.  His boat has already been pulled onto the opposite bank, and of the one enemy visible, all Motley can make out is that the guy has an arrow quiver on his back.  And the narration explicitly tells us, "Motley waited to obtain no further information" and orders his two remaining crewmen to march with him northeast.  We wouldn't want him to stick around and see something that would foil McGlincy's ruse, would we? 

Even the narration is confused as to how three men with no weapons and one pair of moccasins between them manage to make it across the wintery plains, and we're told that "Motley never had anything to say on the subject."  It was probably a very interesting and thrilling journey, filled with close brushes with death and Motley's efforts to remain in control of the situation and keep his men motivated.  It would make a good story, I'd say, and I'm disappointed we don't get to hear more - or any - of it.  But the author just skips it, even more than he skipped Yellow Hairs nine months at Fort Chesterfield.

However he managed it, Motley makes it to the HBC's outpost on the South Saskatchewan fork five days later, and isn't asked any questions until he's had some food.  When he does give his account he does so "with a great economy of words" (a man after the author's heart), then orders the fort factor to arm fifteen men and be ready to go in the morning.

Andy Nichols, the factor in question, objects that fifteen men are no match for an entire Indian tribe, and that Motley doesn't even know whodunnit.

"I'll be the judge of that, Nichols.  I saw one man dressed in buckskin.  He had a quiver across his back."

"Some renegade white you think?"

"I know it," said Motley.  "A renegade in the employ of the Nor'Westers.  They'll give him up or I'll swing every mother's son of them from the English gallows.  Take care of my two men and get the others ready.  Remember, we march at dawn!"

O-kay.  So McGlincy's whole scheme depended on a white Indian, did it?  He couldn't have had his men dirty their faces or something, or taken pains to completely wipe out the HBC group so there would be no witnesses, and then scalp the corpses so even if someone found the bodies they'd assume some Indians did it?  He had to keep this rare white-raised-Pikuni prisoner for nearly a year so when he made his attack, if any HBC survivors spotted one (and only one) of his men dressed up like a native, McGlincy could hand over Yellow Hair as the fall guy?

And Motley didn't find it strange that his attackers didn't do any whooping or yelling like attacking Indians are wont to do?  And when he saw a white man with a quiver, his thought was "must be a half-breed" and not "guess they're low on powder?"  And if he's identified the culprit(s) as a renegade "in the employ of the Nor'Westers," he can only go after him and not the rival company?  McGlincy is untouchable because he merely gave the orders to launch a raid instead of firing any shots himself?

This is a set of very specific steps that rely on a very specific conclusion to be drawn from them so everything unfolds just right.  All so what, Yellow Hair can run afoul of white justice and go around killing honkies?  The author couldn't come up with a way to accomplish that which didn't require nine months of nothing to happen at a trading post?

Something else that's weird - Hubbard refers to the HBC boat as a Mackinaw, but there's no mention of its sail, only the rowers.  Guess the wind wasn't with them so they weren't using the sail... but then why didn't they have to avoid getting the mast tangled in drooping branches?

Back to Chapter 9 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Buckskin Brigades - Chapter 9 - Time Flies

So for reasons the author doesn't bother to spell out for us, Yellow Hair decides to stay at Fort Chesterfield to continue his mission of learning about the white man.  You might assume that the next couple of chapters will be a story arc about Yellow Hair doing just that, observing and commenting on the pioneers' behavior, comparing their life in the fort to his upbringing in a Pikuni village, maybe even wondering who or what he would have become had his father stayed East instead of adopting a new culture in the West.

You'd be wrong.  Instead, Chapter 9, "The Winter Passes," sums up nine months at the fort in four pages.

We're told our hero "fared fairly well," and also that "trouble treated him like a magnet."  This would be a contradiction if Yellow Hair wasn't so dead 'ard that he easily wins the two fights some French-Canadians pick with him, which fill up the jail so he gets to be housed elsewhere (we're not told where).  So even when trouble comes after him, he manages to benefit from it instead of being endangered.

We're told that Yellow Hair behaves so well on his parole walks that he becomes the fort's main hunter, since none of these other frontiersmen are savvy enough to pick out a two-year-old buffalo cow or sufficiently talented to ride alongside it and bring it down with an arrow at point-blank range.  None of the other hunters are "skillful enough to be selective in their kills," though the author doesn't explain why this was important, whether the stupid white guys were killing enough pregnant or young animals to put the entire population in jeopardy, or if they were blasting the first varmint they saw and bringing back a single rabbit for the whole fort to share.

We're told that the only real moment of concern - even including Yellow Hair's fights - came when other Blackfoot visited to trade and asked about our hero.  They were told that he was out hunting, though in truth he was under armed guard in a locked room, with orders to shoot him if he showed his head.  Why's that necessary, though?  What's Luberly and McGlincy afraid of?  Are they under the assumption that Yellow Hair thinks he is still a prisoner and would complain to the others, even though he's been given considerable freedom and could leave any time if he really wanted to?  Or do they think that the other Indians will talk him into leaving before he can be the fall guy in their scheme? 

We're told that Father Marc learns a lot of the Blackfoot tongue, particularly after figuring out that it has no equivalent sounds for B, D, F, G, J, L, R and Z, but that his language exchange with Yellow Hair is largely "one-sided."  See, Yellow Hair last spoke English when his papa died when he was six, but it's all still in there, plus he has the superhuman memory required of a Blackfoot scout.  "And when a man can look at a trail and notice the pattern of hoofprints, remember the weather of thirteen days past, recall the peculiarities of fifty different bands and reconstruct a history of the passage which would take two hours in the telling, a few things like words are not apt to be found difficult."

We're told that Yellow Hair's only difficulty is wrapping his head around a written alphabet, which he doesn't see the point of when there's perfectly good pictograms to work with - what part of "circle, slightly higher circle, circle, semicircle with the flat side down" don't you understand?  But he gets the hang of it eventually and masters the white man's language, although Yellow Hair has disgustedly given up of ever trying to understand the white man's culture.

We just aren't shown any of it.

It's understandable, I mean we're a third of the way through the book already, and this is supposed to be a story of "violence, treachery, privation and death," not some sort of insightful cultural critique.  The author clearly wants to get to the good stuff, not character development or anything, but death and mayhem.  So the chapter ends with the mention that the frozen river is melting, the shipment of the Hudson Bay Company's furs will be coming through soon, and Yellow Hair is completely ignorant of the plan McGlincy and Luberly have in store for him.  Soon we'll get to the scalping and the shooting and the yelling.

I just have to ask, why did we even need the "Yellow Hair wants to learn about his people" angle in the first place if it was so quickly and decisively abandoned?  I suppose it got him to go to the fort to be captured so he could be used as a patsy during some corporate warfare, but if the Blackfoot come to the fort anyway to trade, why couldn't he arrive then?  And then he has his first beer and causes a ruckus and the fur traders convince the Pikuni that justice demands that he sit in jail for a few days, or whatever?  And maybe he's already picked up some English from an earlier visit? 

And why does he have to be white when he's making no effort to blend in or learn about his original culture?  ...Oh.  I see Chapter 25 is titled "Who is Yellow Hair?", a question that probably wouldn't be asked if he was just another dirty Indian.

Back to Chapter 8

Friday, April 24, 2015

Buckskin Brigades - Chapter 8 - The Mighty Monk and Bathing

Let's kick things off with two pages of exposition about Father Marc's backstory and character.

Marc Lettau is in the New World because of his irreverent sense of humor, which once caused him to remark out loud "You'd think even an ass could recognize and appreciate Pierre's dignity" when a bishop's donkey threw him.  As we all know, such a shocking statement must be addressed by an ecclesiastical court, and the only remedy was to transfer the father to deepest, darkest Canada in hopes that "the mighty solitudes would quiet him."  This caused the bishop of Quebec two sleepless nights until he decided to make Father Marc the chaplain of Fort William, thus beginning the father's circuit of Nor'Wester holdings.

But even the unrelenting nightmare that is colonial Canada has no effect on Father Marc's ability to laugh.  He thinks it's funny that "a handful of drunken white men should overlook a territory as large as the Russian Empire," that a century-dead king signed over three-quarters of a continent to six men who had never been to it, that despite all these kings and corporations swapping parchment the land really belongs to its original inhabitants, and that traders from the Hudson's Bay Company and the Nor'Westers and the Missouri Fur Company and Rocky Mountain Fur Company are all killing each other over beaver pelts.  I guess sometimes, when faced with the vicious absurdities of the world we live in, it's either laugh or scream.

So that's Father Marc.  Nice of the book to tell us that he was probably being sardonic when he grinned at McGlincy vowing to defy the courts and continue raiding and murdering his fellow man, it makes the father much more sympathetic. Well, a bit more, it'd be nice if someone suggested that all of this was wrong.  Maybe someone who might have access to some scripture to back him up.  But whatever.

The father is interested in Yellow Hair mainly because he'd like to learn some Blackfoot words for the Nor'Westers so that he can be irreverent and sardonic in another language.  Yet the narration also assures us that "It is necessary for even a priest to respect somebody besides his saints and again Yellow Hair was the target."  And thank you, Hubbard, for implying that a priest holds your main character in as high regard as the saints.  I just can't get enough of watching your heroes be worshiped by the rest of the cast.

Switch focus to Yellow Hair.  He's suffering greatly from his week in the "butter tub," because after growing up in spacious Pikuni lodges, he doesn't feel safe in a wooden-walled room with only one entrance.  Now with this statement in mind, go back and read Chapter 6 again for any sign of such distress when he first entered the trading post.  I'll save you some time, there isn't any.

More understandable is Yellow Hair's disgust at the squalid conditions in the fort's jail, the lice, and the stuffy hot air that suffocates him at night.  He can neither eat nor sleep, like a "mere beast" brought in from the wilderness and put into a cage - and yes, that's the simile the author uses, comparing our hero to a wild animal.  I thought Hubbard was going for "noble savage," but meh.

And I think Yellow Hair has turned evil or something, because after a week in that "butter tub," not only has he worn out his moccasins from pacing, but

Rage had burned his eyes deep into his head.  His mane of yellow hair was tangled and unkempt.  His so lately spotless antelope skin was smudged and ripped.

The jacket is dirty, guys, the jacket.  Our hero's probably become as evil as his drunken, murderous captors now.

When he checks on the prisoner, Father Marc is moved by the plight of Yellow Hair's jacket, and using sign language asks if the white Indian could use a drink.  Instead Yellow Hair emphatically signals that he wants a bath.  This puzzles Father Marc, for "No Nor'Wester ever bathed and only one priest in the past hundred years had had a bath---and he died from the effects of it."  But he nevertheless shares his concerns with the fort's leader.

"Alex," said Father Marc with surprising disrespect for such a great man, "I am worried about our young friend."

"Friend?" croaked McGlincy, trying to remember if he had any friends.  He didn't think so.

I don't think this is supposed to evoke sympathy, I suspect it's a "look how evil he is!" moment to help us properly despise our caricature of a villain.

Anyway, Father Marc suggests that having Yellow Hair out and about might reassure the Blackfoot who are undoubtedly spying on the fort so that they don't burn it down out of vengeance, and is sure he could get the savage to promise to behave himself when outside.

"Parole?" shouted McGlincy, sitting up straight.  "What good is an Indian's word?"

Father Marc grinned.  It had flashed across his mind that every man measures another's word by the yardstick of his own.

He's like a satirist or comedian, making these wry and incisive observations about things, except he keeps them all to himself so there's no chance of influencing and improving others' behavior.  Like if Jon Stewart wrote down all his quips in a journal he never shared with anyone and worked as an appliance repairman.  C'mon, surely a fort chaplain is allowed to be preachy!

McGlincy eventually agrees that Yellow Hair can go out in the mornings so long as he's within range of two rifle-toting guards, but he'll still have to be locked up at night.  Father Marc goes back to the "butter tub" and sign-languages the terms of the deal to Yellow Hair.  Yellow Hair isn't happy, and is "impatient to be gone to his town in the south" ...oh, he's abandoned his mission?

I guess not, because Yellow Hair looks back at the jail and reconsiders, then gets to walk down to the river with Father Marc and two nameless riflemen.  Yellow Hair judges that "it would be simple to swim the river" to freedom, again suggesting that he's given up on the reason he came to this fort, but he looks back at Father Marc and "saw no distrust in the fellow's eyes."

So Yellow Hair suddenly dives into the river fully-clothed, nearly startling the guards into shooting and ending this book on page 79, then disrobes, dives in again, and starts scrubbing himself with sand, nature's body wash.  Father Marc concludes that "if a bath felt that good he would certainly have to try one some time," and the chapter ends.

Well... I guess we learned stuff about a major supporting character.  But I think the most important thing that happened this chapter was almost critically understated.

In all of a page we saw Yellow Hair struggling with whether he should make a break for freedom or put up with these savages and learn about them.  I say "struggle," though really he just thought about how easy it'd be to run and how he'd like to go home.  But then he looked in Father Marc's eyes, and he ultimately stuck around, so presumably there was some sort of decision involved, some revelation that changed his mind.  Maybe Yellow Hair felt guilt at the thought of abandoning the father's trust, or maybe he was heartened by someone at the fort actually showing an interest in him or treating him as an equal.

We can only imagine, because the narration focused on Yellow Hair's bath and Father Marc's reaction to it, and as usual most of the hero's thoughts took place behind an iron curtain.  Why waste words on inner conflict or character development when you can leave your readers to try to infer the main character's motivations?

Back to Chapter 7

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Buckskin Brigades - Chapter 7 - A Thought so Complex it Brings Luberly to Tears

This chapter is titled "McGlincy is Inspired," and just goes to show how much more efficient these early Hubbard villains are.  The "major" didn't have to spend half a book hoping for "INSPIRATION!" on how to solve his problems, he had himself a brainwave in the middle of a conversation with Yellow Hair and the brawl that followed didn't dislodge it.  If Gris were like that, Mission Earth would've been at least two books shorter.

Neither McGlincy or Luberly are showing much sign of the proto-Hubbard Action Sequence that happened last chapter - Luberly's swollen jaw is concealed by his wild beard, and at most there's some spilled whiskey on McGlincy's coat.  Being rough-and-tumble frontiersmen they're not really concerned about the physical aspect of the fight, they're just "intensely annoyed" that some damned savage started one without provocation.  McGlincy is already retconning the events of last chapter, insisting that Yellow Hair was petrified with terror when the major was looming over him.  Luberly says nothing but looks around to make sure Father Marc is out of earshot.

I'll admit it, I smirked.

Luberly then voices some concerns about that "half-breed" they now have in custody, concerns that aren't shared by his boss.

"What do I care about that?" snarled McGlincy.

An unaccountable thought flashed through Luberly's greasy head: McGlincy didn't have to care. When a reprisal came, McGlincy would be far away and Luberly would be left holding the sack---or rather, Yellow Hair. Luberly did not have enough intelligence to realize how completely he hated this despot; he did not philosophically decide that a show of fawning adoration and flattery is sometimes employed to cover hate and distrust. He simply realized that McGlincy was not in the least bit worried about the fate of one Brock Luberly and certain associated bullies and voyageurs.

I'm not sure if I like this paragraph or not.  I'm all for insulting unlikeable characters, but do we lose anything if Luberly is just smart enough to realize he doesn't really like his boss, but that it's in his best interests to act otherwise?  And why do characters have to have "unaccountable" thoughts?  Are they so stupid that they can't figure out how they drew their own conclusions?

Anyway, Luberly explains why the Blackfoot are trouble, and tells a story about how one night the fur traders treated some visiting natives to some booze...

McGlincy snorted again. "Nothing new about that."

"The heads of the tribe," pursued Luberly with caution, "had, as usual, told Franklin not to hand our spirits to their people."

"The people drink 'em, don't they? What did Franklin care about a flock of dirty niggers?"

Not sure whether this novel is accurately capturing the casual racism of 1806 or 1937.

Well, one of the braves decided to have a drink anyway, and accused this Franklin of stealing his furs "when any trader can tell you that it's policy to put out the whiskey first and that this Indian certainly wasn't robbed," so they put some laudanum in the guy's drink to make him have a nap.  But they got the dose wrong and the man died, the Blackfoot had a meeting about it, and decided it was an act of murder, "Can you imagine that?"  Those impertinent Indians besieged the fort, so Franklin waved the truce flag, got them to approach, and then blasted them with grapeshot from the fort's cannon.  The only reason the survivors didn't burn the fort down was because the fur traders outnumbered them.

McGlincy likes the story and approves of the clever treachery regarding the truce flag, but beats me to the punch and asks what the point of it was.  Luberly was just trying to explain that if the Blackfoot find out about the guy they just arrested, there'll be hell to pay.  See, he knows that even though Yellow Hair is a half-breed, those "bloodthirsty devils" would burn the fort down if they knew he'd been hurt.  I guess Luberly somehow figured out that they're up against the story's hero.  It was probably the white hunting shirt.

But McGlincy already knows this, see, that's why he had Yellow Hair imprisoned instead of shot.

All this seemed to imply McGlincy's benevolence.  Luberly smiled in warm congratulations and appreciation.

So I guess Luberly is being fooled?  Even though McGlincy just explained that he doesn't want to provoke the ire of the Blackfoot, Lubelry still thinks his boss spared Yellow Hair out of the goodness of his heart?

McGlincy grinned, showing broken, yellow fangs.

Oh no, now Luberly has malaria!  ...Seriously, Hubbard, it's the very start of the Nineteenth Century.  You can't rely on using physical deficiencies to prove people's evilness in a setting that hasn't heard of modern dentistry or warm showers.

McGlincy repeats his observation that his fellow fort leaders were a bit crude in their attacks on the rival Hudson's Bay Company, and even though the distant courts don't mean anything, it may be smart to be careful.  So when McGlincy makes his move against the HBC, he'll do it in a way that won't implicate Fort Chesterfield.  See, those HBC dogs are gonna be scalped.

McGlincy taps his nose while saying this, and the author interrupts some vital exposition with a paragraph explaining that this gesture, meant to show that McGlincy is in the know, is also a Blackfoot gesture that in one of those amazing coincidences means "idiot."  But McGlincy doesn't realize this because "His mind was on beaver pelts, was always on beaver pelts and always had been until it seemed likely that his skull itself was fur-lined."  So now you can properly appreciate the irony of someone using a nose-tapping hand gesture to attempt to signal his intelligence when in a nearby culture it denotes the opposite.

Luberly is confused as to how McGlincy plans on getting the Blackfoot to do his dirty work for him, so McGlincy has to explain that no, his brigades will do the scalping.  And then Luberly objects that the HBC will be mad and get them all hanged, so McGlincy has to explains some more that they'll scalp them in a way that implicates the Indians.  They keep the half-breed around, dose him with some laudanum, then hang the scalps on his belt so he thinks he did it and gets all the blame.  The Nor'Westers can even earn some brownie points by handing this fugitive over to their rivals and colonial government.

The beautiful light of admiration shone upon Luberly's face.  Stunned by McGlincy's brilliance, he could only sit and marvel at the greatness of the man.  Overcome, Luberly could only wipe his nose on his sleeve and snuffle very loudly.

So does nobody have a pack of cards at this fort?  Has Luberly never played poker or any card game involving a bit of deceit?  Or is he simply an honest and straightforward fellow at heart with no experience with such deception?

But there's our plot, I guess.  A big bad colonial figure out to get rich by exploiting America's natural resources, and who has a drinking problem and isn't as smart as he thinks he is, is attempting to use one of the natives to further his own ambitions, while said native (who happens to be white and physically perfect) is also hoping to turn things around and learn the methods of his captors so he can drive them out.

So, am I talking about Buckskin Brigades or Battlefield Earth?  At least McGlincy's scheme won't backfire and lead to the destruction of Canada and England.  Probably.

Back to Chapter 6, part 2 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Buckskin Brigades - Chapter 6, part 2 - Sign Language and the Importance of Clean Clothes

Luberly isn't impressed by this notification about a "young hunter" and tells the nameless messager to shoo him out, the Major is busy.  But McGlincy says this visitor may be a runner with news, and orders him to be let in.

In a moment the door slid wide open. Silently, Yellow Hair strode into the room.

He gave his surroundings a quick glance which, for all its speed, marked every object in the place, sorted out the various entrances, appraised the goods on the counter, measured the length of McGlincy's sword, appreciated Father Marc's possibilities as a wrestling opponent, noted two knives and a pistol in Luberly's belt, counted the full bottles in McGlincy's open case, turned critical at the dirt which smeared the floor, and had seen that the guns in the rack against the wall were all primed.

We're supposed to be terribly impressed that our hero can process all this information in one rapid scan of the room, instead of wondering how he can do this when his eyes are no doubt adjusting from entering a comparatively dark interior after being outside in daylight.  Or what entrances besides the door he just went through there are to sort out.  Or what currency or trade goods he used to appraise the stuff on the counter, whatever that stuff was.  Or what units Yellow Hair used to measure the sword beyond "pretty long."  Or where Luberly was standing relative to him, and whether his clothes allowed Yellow Hair to study his waist, and whether Luberly took offense to that.  Or why someone who lived in simple tents and huts would be snooty about some dirt on the floor.

In another glance, after he had come to a stop in the center of the floor, he had read straight through McGlincy, Father Marc, Luberly and a narrow-faced clerk.  He knew that McGlincy had been boasting, that Luberly was fawning, and that Father Marc was disrespectfully amused.

And we're supposed to accept that the young, inexperienced Yellow Hair can instantly figure out other people's characters and what they had been doing before he entered the room, especially if those people are deceitful whites whom he has no experience with (beyond seeing his reflection in the water).

He did not stop to think about the contrast he made there.  His antelope-skin hunting shirt was perfectly clean.  His white, hip-length leggings were without a single spot.  His weapons gleamed with polishing.

And we're supposed to buy into the author's belief that beauty equals goodness and evil is grungy.  And not wonder whether pure white clothing might be a liability when it comes to hunting in non-wintry terrain.  Or how Yellow Hair can keep his laundry so spotless and white in a time before [note: get a sponsorship before namedropping detergent brands].  Or what bison byproduct he was polishing his weapons with.  Or what kind of leggings do not extend to the wearer's hip.

There was nothing slumped about his posture, which made him much different from the rest.  He looked like an antelope poised for instant action in any direction, and yet he was perfectly at his ease.

I dunno, Hubbard, maybe go with a non-herbivore animal analogy?  An antelope or deer would do for a woman, but for the book's great white Indian brave hero, let's compare him to a wolf, or maybe a mountain lion.  You know, something manly.  Nobody wants to be compared to an antelope.  Except maybe hurdlers.

He was careful, for once in his life, to observe formalities because he saw the reverence the red-jacketed one was afforded by the others.

A-huh.  So Yellow Hair can read "straight through" these fellows without picking up that McGlincy is a devious tyrant and the chief bully of bullies, and mistakes subservience with reverence?

Well, diplomacy happens.  Yellow Hair says "I come from my chiefs with greetings to the white chief," with the accompanying hand gestures in case nobody speaks his language.  McGlincy asks "What the hell's this?  Talk English!" and surprises Yellow Hair, because among those noble savages of the American frontier, even a mortal enemy is allowed to speak without interruption until he's finished.

And I have to ask, how did Yellow Hair "talk" his way into the fort in the first place?  And why didn't anyone warn McGlincy that his visitor didn't speak English?

However, Yellow Hair repeated the signs in silence.  This time, although it galled him to do it, he added the query sign by shaking his right hand jerkily back and forth, palm out, shoulder-high.  Then he made an incomplete ring---a sun---out of his right thumb and forefinger, raised it in a sweep over his head and finally brought it down over his heart.

He had not only given the white chief greetings but he had hoped that the white chief was happy---had a sun shining in his heart.

He started to state his business in dignified, sweeping curves, but again McGlincy interrupted.

"If he can't talk," snapped McGlincy, "tell him to get out!"

And now Yellow Hair starts to change his perception of McGlincy, and matches the man's hostility with contempt, considering this White Chief no better than a slave, or Digger ("A derogatory term for a member of any of several tribes of Indians in the western United States who dug roots for food" says the Glossary).

Luckily Father Marc comes to the rescue by explaining that Yellow Hair is from the Blackfoot, signing hello, and has business with McGlincy, and they'd better play nice or else they're all as good as dead.  The "major" insists that of course he knows sign language, he was just putting this bois brûlé, which he helpfully translates as "half-breed," in his place.

Yellow Hair's memory stirred uneasily at this barrage of English.

With a bit of French for flavor.

It seemed to him as though he knew the words, but could not quite grasp their meaning. However, the feeling was quickly spread. Yellow Hair was getting mad.

Rather than ponder the credibility of being able to get properly offended by insults in a language you don't speak, I'd like to point out that any chance of Yellow Hair being mistaken for a Kitchi-Mokan lasted only until he opened his mouth - at best they've taken him for a half-breed rather than a full-blooded white feller raised by red fellers. So really choosing him over any other Pikuni caused some needless confusion more than anything helpful.

Also, why couldn't White Fox have come in with him during this encounter, just to see that everything started off properly rather than, well, turning out like this chapter?

Luberly threatens to teach this half-breed some manners for "interrupting gentlemen," Yellow Hair has concluded that two of these three men aren't even worth scalping and is preparing to "give them that which they richly deserved" before fighting his way out of the fort, but Father Marc provides the sole voice of reason (or something like it) when he warns McGlincy that bois brûlé or not, their visitor represents the Blackfoot tribe, prideful but still "fine fellows." Besides, "you can read in those clothes that he is no common savage." He's wearing white, for crying out loud! Where do you even get bleach in the Old, Old West?

"Pride, has he?" said McGlincy, pounding the table with his bottle and leaning forward. "Pride, you say? We'll take that out of him. So these damned savages think they're too good for us, do they? So they're getting uppity, are they? It was about time I came up here. Lucky I knew about those brigades coming and had the time to spare. . . . Brigades, did I say? Brigades? Wait!"

You can just see the oil lamp flare up over his head.  Unfortunately Yellow Hair has had enough, and though he's wondering how much booze would pour out if he gutted McGlincy, he decides to walk out even when McGlincy has Father Marc start signing some questions. McGlincy yells "Wait!" again, Yellow Hair ignores him, and Luberly grabs him.

Yellow Hair had already suffered far beyond his normal endurance.

Again proving just how terrible a choice he is for this mission.

Besides that, his trained reflexes were quicker than his thoughts.

I risk repeating myself.

To be touched by an enemy meant but one thing. That enemy wanted to count a grand coup before he killed you. If he failed to touch you harmlessly before he cut you down, he would count only an ordinary coup.

Luberly's "coup" was to grab Yellow Hair by the shoulder and turn him around. Physical contact from a guy you don't like? Grounds for killing in self-defense.

So, an action scene.

Luberly snatched again, evidently to jerk Yellow Hair toward McGlincy.

Yellow Hair bent suddenly. His deft hands shot out. He pivoted. Luberly left the floor with a terrifying uprush. Screaming, he was borne lightly aloft.

Hang on...

Yellow Hair threw him like a lance straight across the room, square at the biggest target there---McGlincy's scarlet cloak.

Luberly's scream knifed off.

In a tangle of black and red, out of which came a raking hiccup, McGlincy and the factor collapsed amid the chair splinters.

The bottle gurgled a pool upon the floor. Father Marc started up and stayed halfway.

Yellow Hair shouted, "Hyai!" and whirled to sprint before guns blazed.

It's almost a proper Hubbard Action Sequence. We've got improbable feats of close-quarters combat and a bunch of quick sentences, but I think it's missing some exclamation points.

Now that's a thought - the major difference between Hubbard's writing at the start and end of his career was what type of punctuation he used for it.

Unfortunately(?) the minute Yellow Hair opens the door to make his escape, a whole crowd of waiting voyaguers and bullies rushes in to swarm him. His knife comes out, an enemy hits him in the head with a pistol butt, Luberly recovers and pulls a dagger, but then a "brown juggernaut" interposes and pins Yellow Hair down by more or less sitting on him - it's Father Marc, who promises to kill the first man who moves.

So ends the action sequence, thanks to the Mighty Monk. That's not me being sarcastic, that's straight from the narration.

"I'll have your life for this," promised McGlincy.

Not sure if he's talking to the priest or Yellow Hair here.

"And who would absolve you?" said Father Marc complacently. "I can't allow such things to happen in my presence. It's disrespectful of you. Have you no reverence for the cloth?"

So raiding rival companies in defiance of the colonial charter is a-ok in the eyes of this Father, and he had no objections to getting Indian guests drunk and killing them, but he draws the line at this arguable act of self-defense. Sure is lucky for our hero, eh?

McGlincy wants to flog the hell out of Yellow Hair, but the padre explains that the Blackfoot are "the best fighters on the plains," so harming this half-breed will only get the fort killed (sucks to be those dead Indians from the other tribes). McGlincy is at a loss what to do until Luberly, planning future revenge, suggests they imprison Yellow Hair for now, and Father Marc agrees to take him into his custody. So four bullies drag our hero out of the room, across the fort's yard, and lock him in another room.

Yellow Hair stared out of the grate, fury leaping like lightning inside of him.

Oh, what he'd do to these fools! How he'd make them suffer for this!

He'd send Bright Star a red hunting shirt all right,

That seems even less practical than a white hunting shirt.

with a dirty brown scalp to match.

What do you even do with those? Hang them on the walls? Use them for coasters? Collect a village's worth and make a sweater out of skin and human hair?

White slaves! Hyuh!

Well that's a new exclamation.

Anyway, that's "Strange Men and Strange Manners," the story of how Yellow Hair used his tact and patience to win over a fur trading post so he could learn more about the pale newcomers to his people's lands. Tune in next time to see what idea McGlincy almost articulated before he was so rudely interrupted by a Luberly to the face.

Back to Chapter 6, part 1

Friday, April 17, 2015

Buckskin Brigades - Chapter 6, part 1 - The Major, the Factor, and the Father

And in this chapter, we meet what are presumably the book's villains.  I mean, it obviously isn't Captain Lewis, he's long gone.

When that majestic tyrant Alexander McGlincy gets off his boat, "history was instantly made at Fort Chesterfield."  The people in the canoes form a little parade that marches up to the fort, and their arrival is announced by the firing of the cannon over the gate.

The voyageurs cheered.  The Union Jack flapped on the flagstaff.  An Indian dog howled.  Brock Luberly stood on the steps before the trading door, opened said door, bowed, and Alexander McGlincy, creaking, clinking and belching, entered.

Luberly's the fort's factor, by the way.

We don't get a lot about the fort's layout just yet, and the most I can tell you is that it has a stockade with a cannon over its gate, and some sort of trading room or office.  Presumably the gate doesn't lead directly into the trading office, but we're not told how the procession crossed the courtyard or anything, so we can only imagine.

Sitting happens, and more importantly, not-sitting.  When McGlincy enters "the room" he is gracious enough not to take offense at a French-Canadian voyageur quickly jumping to his feet instead of showing proper deferment to a Nor'West partner by standing the instant he knew McGlincy was outside.  McGlincy sets down his bottle of booze "with the air of an explorer taking over an ocean or two with the dub of a sword," backs into a chair, takes another swig, and announces "Well, damme, I'm here!"

And when McGlincy is here, he's here.

Luberly nods in "anxious agreement," helping to establish his character as one of those sniveling bootlicks seen in the shadow of classic villains, and all the voyageurs nod along as well.  But one person doesn't, and when McGlincy "stabbed a back glance," the man is not only not nodding, but he's sitting down, a situation so outrageous it must be exclaimed!

But the guy turns out to be Father Marc Lettau, so it's okay to let him sit.  This isn't so much about Lettau being the fort's priest as it is about Lettau being an inch over six feet tall, two hundred and forty pounds of pure muscle.  Father Linebacker has "a big face, a big mouth which grinned and merry, small eyes which lighted their best in a wrestling match."  A priest who sits wherever and whenever the hell he wants, in other words.

Father Marc asks how things were at Fort William, and McGlincy explains that it was terrible, the place is completely dry - because "Didn't I just come from there?"  The Father grins, Luberly has such a laughing fit that he turns purple, and McGlincy keeps repeating the joke until Luberly "has not a bit of wind or energy left."  These are not terribly sophisticated people, as you can see.

McGlincy eventually moves on to talk about the great party they had before leaving the fort, after which a guy named Duncan was out for three days.  And like every great party, people died.  "Fights!  Lor' what fights!  Seven Indians killed the first night after we issued out the rum!"  And yeah, this sounds kind of bad, but as McGlincy explains when Father Marc asks about other things, that party's the only time there's any sort of respite from the hard life of a fur trader.  "Even great men, said McGlincy, needed to let loose once in a while."  And there's nothing more relaxing than some drug-fueled murder, eh wot?

Then Father Marc makes the mistake of asking about the rival Hudson's Bay Company fur traders, "and the effect was similar to that produced by a fuse and match in a powder keg" - McGlincy detonates in a fiery explosion, blowing a hole in the fort's wall and sending shrapnel fly- well, he pounds a table and sputters.  But like a powder keg would pound a table and sputter.

The problem is - well it's not really a problem, more like an insult - the courts in Montreal have declared that the Nor'Westers aren't allowed to raid their rivals in the HBC anymore, even when those blaggards "snap the trade and the Indians right out from under us."  And this is an interesting statement.  Presumably McGlincy is talking about acquiring furs from the natives, which would suggest that it may be important to foster good ties with them in order to maximize profit for minimal effort.  Yet earlier the guy practically gushed about how many Indians he got drunk enough to kill in a celebratory brawl.

Could this be the original self-destructively stupid, evil Hubbard Villain?

Father Marc brings up some sort of charter, McGlincy yells "Damn the charter!" and says that there's no way those quill-pushers in Montreal have a right to govern the whole country.

Brisk heads quickly denied that anyone there said it.

"Fools!  What's a charter got to do with it?  Furs is [sic] the thing and we're here to get furs and God blind me we'll get 'em.  Beaver's up.  Forty pounds a pack.  Forty pounds, my bullies!  And the courts say we can't keep fighting the H.B.C.  Well, I says we can keep fighting and I guess that settles it!"

Luberly croaked, "That settles it!"

Father Marc grinned.

Good to see the padre isn't one of those limp-wristed, "thou shalt not kill" kind of priests.

And so McGlincy rants, for over a page straight.  He leans forward and "looked cunning" as he explains how the HBC lads will be sailing up the river at the end of the month with a load of furs, furs that rightfully belong to the Nor'Westers.  "We've done it before and we'll do it again," after all.  Someone named Campbell is up at Isle a la Crosse keeping the Indians from trading with the HBC there, another partner named Halbane "smashed" an HBC post on Bad Lake that didn't think to post guards, and over near Lake Winnipeg, a McDonnell moved in to claim a debt in furs using rifle butts, with a dagger in the heart for a man who resisted.  And then there was that fool Labau who tried to defect from the Nor'Westers to the HBC, but was tracked down and knifed to death by someone named Schultz, who had to be dismissed from the company but couldn't be touched by the courts.

Or in other words, Fur is Murder and these are all terrible people killing each other in the name of animal pelts.  Evilness good and established, check.

McGlincy chortles at all the furs and provisions their fellow Nor'Westers stole from the competition, but promises that those other guys were sly, but crude.  When that HBC flotilla comes up later, he'll show everyone how it's done.  But McGlincy doesn't actually tell us his plan yet.  There's no point, since he'll come up with a new one next chapter, a plan involving our hero.

The "major"'s bottle runs empty, and Luberly immediately leaps up to get a replacement for McGlincy.  "Not often did a Nor'West partner talk like this to his men.  It warmed Luberly's heart---if he had one."  Evil, remember.  Plus,

Luberly was starved for news.  He had been cooped up in Fort Chesterfield through a long and chilly winter with only a handful of bullies and voyageurs to abuse---a pastime which eventually drags.

Evil and petty.

Thickly built, with a shaggy beard hiding most of his face, Luberly could put up a terrifying fight.  He was habitually dressed in a hunting shirt which shone blackly with overlayers of grease.

Why did you wait five pages after the character was introduced to actually describe him, Hubbard?

Anyway, Luberly hands over the bottle, wipes his nose on his sleeve, musters the courage to ask McGlincy a question... but is interrupted when someone sticks his head in the door to announce that a "young hunter" here to see the Major.  But let's save Yellow Hair's entrance for next time, when we'll see how long he's mistaken for a normal white guy and just how diplomatic he can be.

Back to Chapter 5

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Buckskin Brigades - Chapter 5 - Tyrannical, Drunken Majesty

North, to Canada!  White Fox and Yellow Hair make what is usually a six-day trip in only four-and-a-half, because Yellow Hair is in a hurry.  The book at least mentions them "changing horses often," even though there's no indication that our heroes brought more than two, but I'm still a little dubious.  It's at least three hundred miles from the Marias River in Montana to Fort Chesterfield, Alberta, and according to the map provided in the book, Yellow Hair's route crossed no less than three rivers.  Of course, we're never told how they handled the river crossings, how difficult the untamed wilds were to navigate. what wildlife or other natives they encountered, or anything.  Guess the author wanted to get to the good stuff.

Yellow Hair is the only one enthusiastic about this mission.

White Fox was pessimistic about it.  No good had ever come to the Pikunis from white hands that he had ever seen, and he despaired of even recovering Yellow Hair's body.

Guns.  Those guns you're carrying, the ones you used to become the dominant tribe of the northern Great Plains.  Those came from white guys.  Also, I think there was mention of cooking pots, blankets and knives earlier.  But I guess those trade goods aren't good in White Fox's eyes.

Anyway, Fort Chesterfield has quite a bad reputation among the natives.  Its leader combines a quick temper with a quick trigger finger, while the men he commands are basically thugs and criminals.  "Ruled by despots, each and every Nor'West company man was something of a despot in his own small sphere," quick to bully any Indian they come across.

That quick-tempered Yellow Hair would take offense to these men was inevitable.  Cleanly bred and cleanly raised,

Do we have to bring breeding into this?  Why does it matter so much who someone's parents were?

Yellow Hair was not likely to appreciate the refinements of fur trading and, thought White Fox, a knife in the back would be his lot.

So why send him on this mission?

Yeah, yeah, I know he's white, but he's still a Pikuni.  He doesn't speak Honky, he doesn't know the white man's customs, he is more or less an albino Indian and nobody's going to mistake him for otherwise.  So why not send a Blackfoot down who isn't quick to anger and filled with the impulsiveness of youth?  Perhaps someone even-tempered and diplomatic, someone who's been to a trading post like this and knows how they work?

Ah, that's right, no one else volunteered.  Welp.

Yellow Hair and White Fox look down on the fort from the top of the hill, and for all we're told they could be standing on their own feet, sitting on horseback, or hovering by the wings of their buttocks.  Their objective is teeming with activity, the gates are open, and the voyageurs are all looking southeast expectantly.  White Fox concludes that perhaps the fort is at war, so maybe it's not the best time to send Yellow Hair down.  His little buddy ain't fooled.

"You can see for yourself it looks like the start of a feast.  No need to plead.  What's to be done must be done, White Fox."

"I wasn't pleading."

"Hyai, but that place looks interesting.  I wish I had come here before.  Why didn't you let me?"

Because of beer, actually.  Though the local tribes have decreed that none of their people should drink the white man's spirits should they come visit, many weak-willed Indians have been unable to resist what their hosts so eagerly pass around.  And so each time the Blackfoot come by, one inevitably gets drunk, gets mad, and kills his wife or child.  White Fox bitterly wishes that the "white fathers" would come down with the "red sickness."

Yellow Hair isn't even listening, but cries "Look there!" when he sees a fleet of canoes coming down (up?) the river.  And this is precisely why he shouldn't be going on this vital but dangerous mission.

The author spends nearly a page on the boat full of singing rowers with bright silk headbands.  In the lead is a fellow letting others do the work: "the most resplendent being Yellow Hair had ever seen," someone with a sword in one hand, a bottle of whiskey in the other, and several empty bottles at his feet.  Our hero is impressed by the "tyrannical majesty" of this red-coated drunkard.

The personage's face was large and red and floppy at the jowls.  His nose was massive, soft and blue.  His eyes were jiggly, but this did not detract in the least from his bearing and kingly appearance.

Yes, when I think of kings, I too picture jowls and an unsteady gaze.

From a jackstaff floated a bright and resplendent flag,

You used resplendent twice in half a page, Hubbard.  Personage, too.

which occasionally tangled the head and arms of the voyageur beneath it, but who went grimly on at his toil and who sang very loudly except when the cloth got in his wide black mouth.

Altogether it was a wonderful sight, full of martial blare and monarchial color.

Wait, I though the Blackfoot didn't use canoes or anything because of the importance of the river spirits for their medicine bundles?  Why is Yellow Hair impressed instead of insulted?

Anyway, though Yellow Hair and White Fox have no way of knowing it, that was the grand entrance of "Major" Alexander McGlincy.  "And when Alexander McGlincy arrived, he arrived."  Well said, Hubbard.

White Fox again suggests that Yellow Hair come back with him and tell the Council that they've had second thoughts, but Yellow Hair is quite impressed with this "great white chief" even though White Fox warns that the man is clearly drunk, and therefore capable of anything.  Our hero vows to go down and pay his respects, and boasts that White Fox can tell the others that soon "I'll have him eating out of my hand."  White Fox thinks it more likely that the chief will bite it off.

"Hyai, but we'll see about that," said Yellow Hair.  "If he tries anything with me . . . But I am wasting time.  Go home and tell them that I have arrived.  And tell Bright Star that I send my love and will presently send her a red coat with trimmings before the end of this Red Moon."

Whenever month that is, that Native American calendar website doesn't mention any such moon.

"Goodbye," said White Fox with an effort.

"Goodbye," said Yellow Hair.  And raising his hand, he rode down into the fort.

And there we get our only indication that they were on horses the whole time.

So that was all four pages of "Arrival of the Brigades," which is a dramatic way to say that a supply party came to the fort.  We had a lot of talking, some exposition, and a detailed character description that probably could've been saved for when Yellow Hair met the guy face-to-face, instead of having us marvel at our hero's eyesight for being able to study McGlincy's nose from the top of a hill.

What we didn't get were many thoughts or feelings.  We got to see White Fox's misgivings about alcohol, but nothing from our hero beyond what he voiced out loud.  No trepidation buried under bluster, no worries whether he'll never see Bright Star again, no sense that maybe this strange place is where he really belongs.

Hubbard seems to have started with the same notion of what makes a good action hero as he had at the end of his career: physical perfection, blond hair, a total disregard for danger, and staying emotionally distant if not totally closed to the reader.

Back to Chapter 4, part 2 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Buckskin Brigades - Chapter 4, part 2 - Lots of Talking

Alright, I'm trying to work out Yellow Hair's motivation and failing.

We're told that over the four days between the war party's return and the Grand Council meeting, our hero brought game he hunted to Running Elk's lodge - excuse me, now it's a tent - and scratched on the flap to let them know it was there, while taking care to be out of sight by the time they came out.  He's giving Bright Star time to cool down, and also time to realize "that she had no provider in her lodge as her two brothers were even younger than her."

So Bright Star is able to ride a horse like a warrior, but can't hunt.  Are you sure she's a suitable mate for this story's hero, Hubbard?

On the night of the Grand Council he finally bumps into her outside by the door to the Kit-Foxes lodge, which Low Horns leads.  Bright Star accuses our hero of hiding from her, calls him a Kitchi-Mokan, and demands to know why he didn't go after her father's killer. 

"I was forbidden to follow."

She disregarded the edge in his voice and gave way to her feelings.  "Yellow Hair doing as he is told?  Hyai, do not expect me to believe that.  Ah, these fine stories you tell me.  Yellow Hair bows to no man.  Yellow Hair, as mighty as a big white bear, obeys no orders.  His destiny is war and defeat to our enemies.  Ah, yes, you have said these things.  Time after time I listened to your empty boasting and now, when Running Elk lies dead, when he is mute within the Sand Hills, you come mewling to me about what your orders were.

So here's the thing - you know how in a lot of stories, you start with an idyllic village full of happy, smiling people, and you're annoyed because you know that the bad guys are gonna roll in about ten minutes into it, wreck the place, and kick off the plot?  And you might wish that we could just skip to the wrecking and the plot starting?  Well here's why you may want to think twice.

In this story, we start in extremis, first at war with the Tushepaw, then there's Running Elk's death and the possibility of conflict with the white man.  We're just four chapters in and everyone's emotions are running high, Yellow Hair's being all aggressive and vengeful, and now Bright Star gets to be cranky.  Right when we're getting introduced to them we're seeing these people at their worst, irrational and driven by negative emotions.  And it makes it difficult to like these characters.

Anyway, Yellow Hair says nuh-uh, he is not a Kitchi-Mokan, making Bright Star comment that "you are brave when it comes to shouting down a weak woman!"  She challenges him to join the Grand Council and refuse his orders not to seek vengeance against Running Elk's killer, because as it stands, she'd rather marry a mountain goat than become his "sits-beside-him woman."  And if he doesn't like what she's saying, he can hit her - because surely he's not afraid to beat up a woman?

"You cannot bait me!" cried Yellow Hair, his voice rising with fury, shaking until his fringe quivered.  "I do not have to stand here and stomach your lies!"

"No!  But you would rather stand here than go inside and face the Council.  Ah, but you shake with terror at the thought of it."

He stabbed out and hurled her away from the lodge flap.  He ducked and went in.  His mouth was compressed with rage as he skirted the inner-lining and sank into the seat left for him.

Yay, shoving women around.  But yeah, this is what's got me confused.  It looks like Bright Star is more or less daring Yellow Hair to join the council.  Except he only met her on his way to the council, and they had a seat waiting for him like they knew he was coming.  And yet he doesn't try to tell her how he already plans on going to the Council to argue for vengeance either.  So I just don't know.

Now, normally "one so young and so lacking in trophies of prowess would not have been admitted to the lordly and select group," but since Yellow Hair had been part of the war party... well, he'd been waiting to meet the war party... they've made an exception for our book's hero.  White Fox is already there in a horned bison cap, and my immersion is broken when the author tells us how it makes him look "Satanic."  And is that really the sort of imagery you want to associate with our hero's old, wise mentor figure?  Give Obi-Wan Kenobi red skin and a black goatee while you're at it.

The ceremonial pipe goes around, and Bear Claws only hesitates for a moment before passing it to Yellow Hair - they still accept him as Pikuni, hooray.  Low Horns gets up and gives his account of Running Elk's death, "exactly as he had told it at the scene."  But then Lost-in-Mountains rises and tells us more about what that treacherous white man, this Forked-Tongue, told them.

Apparently Captain Lewis talked about how he served a Great White Father, who now owns the Blackfoot's lands after buying it from a second Great White Father, and who wants the natives to bring their furs to trading camps "towards the rising sun" rather than "north" (yes, these people know what north, south etc. are, but sometimes they wax poetic).  Fork-Tongue's words confused the Pikuni, who couldn't wrap their heads around lands changing hands without war being involved, and they were concerned when the stranger admitted to traveling out west and back, undoubtedly "spying out the numbers of warriors of each nation preparatory to a general attack."  Because "Men, as we know, who cry the loudest for peace are those who are only trying to cover of their own wishes for war."  

So by that logic, Yellow Hair must be some sort of hippie, right?

Parts of this go along with Captain Lewis' account - though as always we have to question how much was successfully communicated.  He did reportedly tell the Pikuni how he'd gone all the way west and back, and also that he brought peace to the people he visited and invited them to trade.  He also wrote in his journal that the Blackfoot claimed to want peace with the "Tushepahs" despite losing a number of friends and family members to them.  But Lewis doesn't mention claiming to own the land, or ordering the Blackfoot to only trade with the American fur traders.

At any rate, Lost-in-Mountains proposes that the Blackfoot continue to trade furs for weapons with the Great White Father in the north (Canada, I presume) so that they may resist this new Great White Father in the east ('Merica), who has already proven himself to be untrustworthy because... well, Lewis talked about bringing peace but some native tribes still went to war, and then he shot the Pikuni for trying to steal his guns.  So obviously the entire eastern nation seeks to take over the Blackfoot's lands.

More talking.  Bear Claws asks some questions that aren't important enough to be transcribed, then White Fox gets up and gives us a lot of backstory about Yellow Hair's father.  Many-Guns apparently was high in the Kitchi-Mokan's government before a rival challenged him to a duel, and even though Many-Guns' ceremonial murder was all done legally, his enemy's friends used trickery to take away his home, horses and "a thing they call 'money.'"  His "sits-beside-him" woman died, and Many-Guns went west to hang out with the Blackfoot.  White Fox reminds everyone how brave Yellow Hair's dad was, how his sense of honor was nearly equal to the Pikuni's, and excuses the entire story as an example of Kitchi-Mokan "justice." 

So we get a scene with Bear Claws commenting "If this is the way those Kitchi-Mokans govern their country, we want nothing of it."  And of course it's not the ritualized bloodshed that they object to, it's that some cowards were angry about it and used non-violent means to avenge their friend.  What a terrible society.

With all this decided, Bear Claws spends a lengthy paragraph describing Forked-Tongue - they don't remember what he calls himself because it's "some queer, meaningless name which makes no sense."  Then the Grand Council convicts him in absentia and sentences him to be killed on sight.  Again, this is superior to the so-called "justice" of the Kitchi-Mokans.

And after this is done, Yellow Hair finally speaks.  He praises the Council for their wise decision and just response to Forked-Tongue's crimes, but doesn't want to wait for the white men to come take their lands away.  His first proposal is to learn more about the "queer customs of this undisciplined tribe" so they'll be easier to repel - at the very least, maybe someone needs to learn their language.  He also thinks a few Pikuni should travel east and "tell this Great White Father of all Great White Fathers that we do not intend to sit like little children and old women and let him snatch up this country."  And on the same trip they could demand custody of Forked-Tongue.

"I suggest that I leave immediately for this country.  Through a queer trick of the Old Man I have a white face and light hair.  I can get through to this Great White Father and tell him that if he does not behave the Pikunis will assemble their three strong arms and wipe him from the Earth.

"I have finished."

White Fox, being sane, thinks that sending Yellow Hair east as an ambassador is a terrible idea.  He explains to the others that no matter how "brave and handsome and strong" Yellow Hair is, "his dreams are bigger than his head."  Plus he just got in an argument with a woman, who is probably listening from the door.  At any rate, they shouldn't "hurl his strong young body into the claws of the white wolves."  And I have to wonder if the rest of the tribe routinely compliment each others' good looks while making speeches, or whether this courtesy only extends to the book's hero.

I also have to wonder whether Bright Star is trying to get Yellow Hair to run off on a suicide mission.  I think I'd like her a lot more if she was.

Anyway, White Fox makes his case, but the problem is, many other members of the Grand Council agree with Yellow Hair's idea: Low Horns, Bear Claws, Singing Bear, Hundred-Horses, Lost-in-Mountains, Double-Coup, the leader of the White Breast Clan, and the oxymoronic head of the Lone-Fighters.  And though we're never told this, I'm guessing that the reason it took four days to hold the Council was because all these new guys had to make the trip to Please Select a Village Name.

If a lot of these new guys had to come in from other villages, they probably wouldn't have such an instant dislike of Yellow Hair to send him on a suicide mission, right?  But I'm not sure about Low Horns and Bear Claws.

In the end, Bear Claws announces that this "youth of great promise" will go north to a trading fort on the river, and learn the tongue and ways of the white man, "pretending friendship" with them so the Blackfoot can get more guns in preparation of the inevitable fight with the Kitchi-Mokan.  Remember, this deception is totally different from the treacherous ways of the white man.

The vote was taken and it was so agreed and it was in this manner that Yellow Hair was thrown, as White Fox said, to the wolves.

But any warrior there would have dared more and so it was not asking too much of the youth.

But none of the others volunteered to go with him, did they?  Also, that sentence could use a comma.

Yellow Hair gave the despairing White Fox a jubilant grin and stalked out of the tent.

Bright Star was waiting in the shadow of a lodge.  She did not speak.  She stood with wide, dark eyes, very afraid for him.

But you wanted him to - bah.

Yellow Hair passed him grandly with a smile.

Smarmy git.

Well that was a long-ass chapter.  Just a few last things to note:

First, Yellow Hair's plan to send emissaries to the Great White Father was actually one of the proposals made by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and if I read things correctly some of the tribes they visited did send representatives to meet with President Jefferson.  If the Pikuni had gone along with Lewis' intention to have him talk with their leaders instead of trying to steal some guns, they might have gotten the same opportunity.

Second, for all the book's introduction made about the accuracy of Hubbard's representation of the Blackfoot, the whole "the peace pipe never passes the lodge's door" thing doesn't come up in this chapter.  To the contrary, actually; a sentence mentions that "The pipe passed in a complete circle while the group deliberated."  Nothing about avoiding doors.

Third, why does Yellow Hair's dad have to be an honorable but disgraced high-ranking government official?  Why couldn't he have been some mountain man or wanderer?  Are we supposed to think better of Yellow Hair now, as if prestige were inheritable?  Or is this setting up a future plot point where someone recognizes him as Senator Kirk's kid or something?  If so, why?

Guess we'll find out in due time.  Tune in next chapter, when Yellow Hair and White Fox ride some horses.

Back to Chapter 4, part 1

Friday, April 10, 2015

Buckskin Brigades - Chapter 4, part 1 - Too Much Talk of Talk

The author warps time in a chapter's introduction again, when he tells us that "The two trails which had almost met diverged, never again to even closely approach," that Captain Lewis returned home safely and was commended for his work.  Lewis of course ended up as governor of the Louisiana Purchase,

an immense land which had been "sold" by a power six thousand miles across land and the Atlantic to another land which immediately accepted "sovereign" rights to "colonize and exploit."

Ugh, if you're going to call powers lands, don't mention the land between those lands/powers.

The actual owners, not important enough to be consulted, were for the moment left alone.

They didn't have a flag.

After telling us how Lewis' story ends, we immediately rewind to the story of Yellow Hair, already in progress.  Why couldn't the note about Lewis' fate be in the book's epilogue or afterword or something?  Why interrupt the narrative to mention something that happens much later and doesn't affect the story?  I assume at the end of this we'll be told about how the legend of Yellow Hair echoed through the generations like that gunshot, and that would've been a better place to put these few sentences.

Anyway, our hero and some other guys are going back to the Pikuni's seat of government, an orderly lines of lodges along the main branch of the Marias River, the town of... well, what's in a name?  They don't so much as stop to sleep along the way because they're so distraught, which strikes me as unfair to the horses.  Hopefully they brought along enough to swap out for fresh mounts.  Sure hate to think they rode their animals to death because of Sadness.

When they had left, the lodges had poured forth gay crowds to wish them luck.  The keeper of the sacred Beaver Roll had gone galloping down the streets shouting out their names and glorifying them.

When they had left, the sun had been daunted by the dazzling whiteness of their hunting shirts and the blazing colors of their plumed war bonnets.

And now, to creep back at dawn, defeated, carrying their dead, shorn of their shields and weapons . . . it was bitter but it had to be done.

I mean what else are you gonna do, not go home?  That's where your stuff is.

Again, the problem with all this is that it's years too early.  This is supposed to be some great betrayal, proof of the white man's untrustworthy and vicious nature.  Problem is, the broken treaties and settlement of the Wild West are still decades away.  In this case, the "betrayal" is that the Blackfoot remembered that the white men talked peace with a tribe that got attacked by a neighbor, and decided they were justified in stealing some guns.  They got caught, and lost two men.  Sad, but that's what happens when you try to rob people without taking all of their muskets.

If they hadn't encountered Lewis, and met up with Yellow Hair and White Fox as planned, and if their raid on the Tushepaw had been foiled by Yellow Hair doing something impulsive and stupid, they could've ended with the same result, the same defeated return home.  But the author is using hindsight to magnify this defeat into some grand tragedy, the beginning of the decline of the Blackfoot and the United States' callous domination of the Native Americans.

During the final approach, Yellow Hair falls back a bit to ride alongside and talk with White Fox.

"We should not be here," said Yellow Hair.  "We were not with the party."

"Not anxious to meet Bright Star?" replied White Fox.  "You were eager enough for the kill.  It is a sorry warrior who cannot take defeat and victory alike."

"I don't mean that.  I wasn't with the party, but Bright Star will think I was.  She will be angry with them and I don't want her to associate Running Elk's death with me."

"You are wise," said White Fox.  "Cut down this coulee before they come up.  You still have time."

"No.  I'm staying.  I just don't like it, that's all."

"One glance is worth a year of explanation," shrugged White Fox.

The only benefits of having this exchange out loud, as opposed to the narration letting us hear Yellow Hair's misgivings, is to 1) have White Fox re-establish his wisdom by dropping an aphorism, and 2) praise Yellow-Hair.  I for one would be willing to miss out on the former if it meant not having to hear the latter.

A crowd gathers, and Bear Claws, the guy who keeps the sacred Beaver Roll bundle, rides out to meet them.  When he sees the two laden horses he turns his mount around to face the rest of the village.

Yellow Hair squirmed in his saddle and the creak of the tight leather was as loud as a pistol shot.

It might be running the "echoes of the gunshot" angle into the ground, but I think I approve of this sentence.

Bright Star rides out, her head "thrown back and her silky black hair danced behind her in the wind," and there's just a moment of pain on her face before she too turns her back.  Yellow Hair sees the questions in her eyes in that brief moment, but says and does nothing, and if he has any mental reaction the narration doesn't share it.  So the war party ends up entering the village in silence, until Running Elk and Wolf Plume's bodies are sent to their lodges.  And then the wailing of the women begins.

Not Bright Star, though, she needs to be strong and awesome enough to fit our hero.  Instead she's out front, "her face buried in the mane of Running Elk's favorite pony."  Yellow Hair wants to comfort her, but alas, you just don't do that.  So he goes to White Fox's lodge and strips naked in front of a child.

Uh, see, there's this Tushepaw kid named Magpie who was "taken into the lodge after a raid the year before" - it'd be rude to say kidnapped - and now lives there "in comfort but as a sort of servant" - it'd be rude to say slave.  So when Yellow Hair gets out of his hunting outfit, Magpie brings some white elkskin clothes to replace them, "White clothes for sorrow."  ...Except Yellow Hair's buckskins were also white, right?  White Fox needled him about it, didn't he?  Guess he was a sad warrior.

Yellow Hair puts on a robe, walks down to the river, and has a bath before changing into the sorrowful white clothes and returning to the lodge for his bison bow.  White Fox is there, getting ready to smoke some "Indian tobacco," causing me to wonder what other kind they would possibly be smoking

"You've had no sleep," said White Fox. "You need it."

"Sleep with that ringing in my ears?" snapped Yellow Hair. "For every wail there I have an ache here." He touched his breast and looked hard at the painted inner-lining of the lodge as though he could see through it and outside.

This line would be more effective if it was clear whether the women's wailing had stopped or not.  If they have and Yellow Hair can still hear them, it's poignant.  If they haven't and their caterwauling is keeping the whole village awake, it's darkly hilarious.

White Fox tries to calm our hero, pointing out "Later on you will have many responsibilities.  There is no need to borrow them now."  He reminds Yellow Hair that Low Horns forbade him from chasing after Running Elk's killers, and plans on saying as such when the Grand Council meets to discuss this tragedy.

But Yellow Hair's hearing none of it - he's tired of talking instead of pursuing vengeance, and not happy now that there's "talk of more talk."  White Fox reminds them that he isn't Running Elk's son-in-law yet and can't claim a proper vendetta, but again, Yellow Hair and deafness.

"You didn't see the way she looked at me."

"I did see it. Women have short memories, Yellow Hair."

I'm sure in another day or two she'll have forgotten that you couldn't save her father.  Give it a week, tops.

"Bright Star," said Yellow Hair with heat, "is not just another woman."

"Of course not.  You love her."

More specifically, she's the romantic partner of the protagonist, so she has to be something special.

At this point Magpie sticks his head in the tent to announce that Yellow Hair's horse is waiting.  And by that I mean that the narration tells us as such, he doesn't get an actual line.  Huh.

"Running away?" said White Fox.

"I'm going out to kill an antelope."

"Peace offering?"


Have to say, I don't mind this sort of snappy, quick conversation.  No long-winded sentences, no paragraph-long statements.  It's a subtle way of making clear that White Fox and Yellow Hair are good and familiar with each other at this point, and don't need a lot of words to communicate - which incidentally makes the times when White Fox has a lot to say more meaningful.

Or perhaps I'm overthinking things and Hubbard meant for everyone to be too distracted by events to say much right now.

White Fox pleads for Yellow Hair to settle down, and again assures him that he'll explain things at the Council.  Yellow Hair is still fed up with all this talk of talking, and tells White Fox "don't try to get me to come to the Grand Council.  I won't!"

Which of course means that

Statement to the contrary, he was there, four days later when it was held.

Now, as much as I love the Gilligan Cut, I can't help but feel that it's somewhat out of place here, in this scene of mourning and angry guilt.

Tune in next time for the Grand Council meeting, when the chapter will live up to its title of "Yellow Hair Receives Orders."  Will they have anything to say to Yellow Hair?  Only one way to find out!

Back to Chapter 3

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Buckskin Brigades - Chapter 3 - Running Elk Talks Himself to Death

"The Request" is a short and straightforward chapter, which starts by telling us that Running Elk died that night, and everyone knew it would happen because "he knowingly hastened his death by talking."  Then the chapter rewinds a bit to reveal what he had to say, making me wonder why we needed to be told about his death beforehand if the author planned on showing it.

The other Pikuni warriors are sleeping, while Yellow Hair is on guard duty - even though the Blackfoot know the Kitchi-Mokans have left their territory, both Low Horns and White Fox agreed that someone needs to be on watch.  My question is whether there was a warrior amongst them that might be better-suited for this task than an impulsive, irreverent hothead who's repeatedly threatened to ditch his comrades to pursue vengeance.  But I suppose the others have had a big day and deserve some rest, and of course Yellow Hair needs to be awake to hear Running Elk's dying speech.

Running Elk beckons him over and immediately apologizes for flinching from Yellow Hair earlier, which our hero insists he's already forgotten.  Good for him, and good for us - we've finally got a positive trait to associate with our hero, the ability to forgive minor offenses.

"That is well.  In a little time, Yellow Hair, I will find the place the Great Spirit has reserved for me in the Sand Hills."

"It will be a mighty place, Running Elk."

I guess the "Great Spirit" is Nah-Too-Si, the Blackfoot's creator/sun deity.  As for the Sand Hills, the Blackfoot Digital Library confirms that the Sand Hills are indeed the realm of the dead, but also that death is sort of a taboo topic.  The only media about it on the site is a discussion in their native tongue, which they don't intend to translate.  Presumably this is why Wikipedia and other sources don't have anything to say about the Blackfoot afterlife.

"I will know the stories of our people who have not come back to tell them, but, Yellow Hair, I will never be able to tell Bright Star."

Down in the cottonwoods an owl hooted dismally.  It knew that a great man would die.

A wolf's quavering howl sounded far off on the darkened plains.

I think this scene would work without the cliched animal noises, myself.

"Hear?" said Running Elk.

Even in his first book, Hubbard preferred that his characters say questions rather than ask them.  And he kept annoying me by doing it all the way to his last book. 

"He knows too.  Yellow Hair, I have been a foolish old man.  I have been too vain.  I have held my head too high to see the path before my feet, and now that I trip, it's too late.  We are a day and a half's journey from my people, and I understand that I have been wrong.  Someday, Yellow Hair, you will be a great man in the tribe.  The Pikunis will need you to guide them.  You are swift and strong, Yellow Hair.  You are brave.  The Pikunis will need all their brave men.

Heavens forbid a white man join an Indian group and not become one of the tribe's heroes, if not its leader.  Otherwise what's the point of joining in the first place, eh?  Wouldn't want to go native and become a mediocre fisherman or something.

Running Elk recounts his people's history with the white folk, how when he was a child only one white man had visited their country and asked them to travel north to a river and trade beaver pelts for goods.  The elders of that time demurred since many people starved during the journey to the trading camps, which I find dubious - surely they could forage and hunt on the move?

Running Elk also mentions that "They cared nothing for travel on the rivers and did not believe that there were many whites and they could not understand what whites wanted with the pelts of the sacred beaver."  Now, according to again, the Blackfoot disdained traveling by canoe and eating fish due to their religious beliefs - the Suyitapis, or Underwater People, powered medicine bundles and other sacred stuff, and I guess the last thing you wanna do is drop a fishing hook in that.  As for the beaver, apparently a beaver medicine bundle was a prized item, but if the Blackfoot did consider the creature sacred, this did not prevent them from hunting and skinning the animals in great numbers to trade with white folk.  Somewhere I read that the exchange rate was one musket for a stack of beaver pelts as tall as it was standing on its stock.

Anyway, Running Elk goes on to say how that first white man was joined by another who built a fort on the river, and then others arrived to chase that guy off, and then more came and established more trading posts.

"They have given us guns, cooking pots, blankets and knives in exchange for small animals we easily catch along the streams.  We have taken advantage of their foolishness and we have not tried to discover why they should value these furs so highly that they murder each other to get them.

Good ol' "stupid white people coveting material goods" observation.  Nothing about how the white man's guns allowed the Blackfoot to become the dominant military power of their corner of the plains.

Running Elk is starting to think that old Many Guns might have been right when he claimed there were "hundreds" of these white folk out to the east, white men who won't respect the Blackfoot's boundaries.  Indeed, now that he's dying, Running Elk's "sight is clear like a fire which flares up just before it goes out," and he can see a time when his people are driven west, and starving.  I think he's referring to the Native Americans in general, it looks like the (Piegan/Pikuni) Blackfoot reservation in Montana is north of the Marias River along the Canadian border, while the other branches of the Confederacy went further north to Canada.

More kissing of the main character's buttocks, along with a quest for our hero:

"Yellow Hair, do not be offended at my brothers.

And absolutely do not under any circumstances apologize for offending them.

You are brave and strong, but you are also kind and can forgive.  You have needed us for years.  You will be the needed one in time to come.  Train yourself for war, learn the ways of these whites, help us keep them out of our nation.  You can see what they do to us, what they have done to me.  Once these people defeat us, we are no more.  This Kitchi-Mokan who talked so much and told so many lies is only one of many.  I know now what your father meant.  These white people will tell us anything and then break their promises as I could snap an arrow.

As far as I can tell, the Blackfoot were treated better than most tribes.  After initial hostility to white fur traders, they ended up benefiting from the beaver trade, and stayed neutral in the Indian Wars.  They were victimized in the pretty heinous Marias Massacre, but that was more an example of idiocy than malicious intent.  The biggest betrayal might be the time in 1874 when the US Government redrew the borders of the Blackfoot reservation without consulting or compensating them, which prompted all but the Pikuni to leave for Canada.  A pretty dick move, but not on the scale of the Trail of Tears.

Again, I guess Running Elk is speaking for all Indians here.

His final words concern his daughter, or more specifically how he was wrong to deny her to Yellow Hair.  You can't blame him for being cautious: Lost-in-Mountains gave his eldest daughter to some lousy brave who is now claiming his rights to her sister, and even if he dies his brother would get the wives and be even worse.

"You will forgive me, Yellow Hair.  Now it will be difficult to take Bright Star as your wife.  She is fine and beautiful.  She is brave and resourceful and even though her moods are stormy she would make a good woman for you.  And you need a good woman, Yellow Hair.  Too long you and White Fox have lived in a lodge together without women.  You must have clothes and new robes and better food.

So I guess that's why Yellow Hair and White Fox were off on their own - they weren't advance scouts, they were living out there.  Follow-up question: why were they living out there?

"Even if Bright Star refuses you, do not despair.  My son Fleetfoot will know you speak the truth when you tell him what I have said.

According to Wikipedia, the Blackfoot did practice polygamy, but in most cases stuck with one wife.  When someone decided one woman wasn't enough, it was thought that taking the first wife's sister as a second wife would cause fewer arguments, but I don't find any indication that the man was obligated to all of his wife's sisters.  In any case, women ultimately decided whether or not they wanted to marry someone, so if Bright Star still refuses Yellow Hair, just because her dad gave him permission to marry her doesn't mean she'd have to if her brother Fleetfoot believed it.  Conflicting with this is, which claims that Blackfoot marriages were arranged by friends or relatives, or even by a girl's parents when she was still a child.  Before it went through, the groom had to prove himself as a provider or warrior.  At any rate, the Lost-in-Mountain scenario seems a bit unlikely - either this lousy warrior would've failed to win the hand of a daughter, or would have no ability to claim her sisters without their consent.

And that's about it.  Running Elk says Yellow Hair can have his horses, robes and daughter, and has given him a mission to learn the ways of the White Man so the Pikuni may defeat them.

"I am an old man, Yellow Hair.  It is right that I die still a warrior.  Do not let them mourn for me.

"I have finished."

Yellow Hair gently shook White Fox's shoulder and whispered in the gloom, "He is dead."

I think that last part could've used more narration and less dialogue.  Something about Yellow Hair's reaction to all this, of finally getting his heart's desire in the worst way, or being given such a heavy burden.  Or maybe something about whether Running Elk died in peace or whether his face was etched with pain.  Instead, we only know he even died in the first place because the start of the chapter tells us, and Yellow Hair tells White Fox.

Huh, wonder why no one else woke up when Running Elk started talking?  

Back to Chapter 2, part 2