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 


  1. Hubbard's description of Motley looks just like the grim reaper! (or Charon, or Dracula, what have you)
    Very cool.
    Also, Hubbard's naming conventions... Motley, and his motley crew.

  2. You know, I didn't make the Motley-skeletal ferryman of the River Styx connection until you pointed out, which is why I'm guessing it's accidental. If Hubbard wants us to think a character looks diabolic in the firelight or whatever, he can usually be counted on to tell us that they looked Satanic even when nobody in the scene is familiar with Christian religious imagery. Making such a understated yet clever allusion would be unusually subtle for the guy.