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

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