Friday, May 8, 2015

Buckskin Brigades - Chapter 14 - Yellow Hair vs. the World

We now return to our fight scene, already in progress.

Like the Olympic torch-lighting event, the battle is kicked off by Motley, "with some ceremony," lighting the fuse to the cannon his grunts rolled up.  The hunk of lead rips clean through the door in a hail of splinters and out through the back wall, shredding Yellow Hair and everything else in the trading room, thus ending the battle in a single-

Well, no.  Instead the trading room's door "was like a thick man hit in the middle with a war club" - the center "shot in" instead of breaking, it rips off its hinges and skids halfway across the room to rest against the counter our hero is using as a barricade, but the door stops the cannonball from going further.  Either that's a very good door or a very poor cannon.

If you're wondering why McGlincy isn't strenuously objecting to Motley's use of heavy artillery on his trading post, just wait until next chapter.

Yellow Hair's still a bit dazed from the impact and the sudden burst of sunlight, but he can see human shapes in the smoke and, one by one, takes up and fires the row of muskets he has aimed at the entrance.  The trading room entrance is only big enough for two men to squeeze through at a time, so six shots later there's a pile of Orkneymen on the threshold and the rest retreat.  Yellow Hair immediately goes about reloading his row of muskets, while Motley bellows orders to reload the cannon.

There is no indication that any of the attackers actually fired their weapons.  Obviously they wouldn't be able to hit our hero if they had, but there's no mention of Yellow Hair ducking bullets with his superhuman reflexes, or even standing unflinching as lead pellets zinged past his ears.  The poor Orkneymen have rifles and pistols, we're told, but I guess they're more concerned about using the truncheons and knives they're carrying too.

The narration then pulls back a bit, taking on the quality of a dry historian viewing events with the benefit of hindsight.

It is very difficult for a casual observer to understand the theory of battle.  Where war is concerned society has denied all men the right to casualness and has demanded instant and interested participation.

Translation: the author is about to spend a page or two going over what all the principal characters are doing in this action scene.  Which counts as a "war."

The narrator makes the utterly nonsensical suggestion that had Yellow Hair been fighting for the HBC, Motley would have showered him with rewards.  This is very stupid - Motley is under the impression that Yellow Hair is the one who butchered his men, and the savage is currently killing even more of them.  The narrator should instead be wryly observing that Yellow Hair is doing such a good job killing HBC mooks that McGlincy would be tempted to hire him if his evil plan didn't depend on handing him over as a captured fugitive.

But, unfortunately for Yellow Hair, he was only fighting in his own interests through a misconceived idea that every man has a perfect right to stay alive.

I'll provide the sarcasm, thank you.

To do this he had to counteract the employment of a cannon by using all the rifles at his command.

Nonsense.  I mean, this makes no sense.  Yellow Hair can't see the cannon, and all he's used the rifles for is holding off the men that come at him while the cannon is being reloaded.  If the HBC flunkies were patient and waited, they could bombard their enemy with impunity.  If you're fighting a siege, let your siege engines do their job.

He had no lust for killing whatever and indeed no interest in it.

Oh realllly?  Let's think back to Chapter 2...

"Ah, but what I'll do to those Tushepaws," said Yellow Hair.  "Hyai, how I'll wade through them!  They will think a prairie fire has hit them.  And I'll take their horses---"

No interest at all.

He wanted very much to live to fight again and he had no retreat except in the face of twoscore white men.

Our hero can already move faster than the rest of these saps can react, and even when under guard in Chapter 8 reckoned he could swim the river to safety.  I'm pretty sure that if he really wanted to, Yellow Hair could slip out of this mess.  But he'll stay and fight so the plot can move in a certain direction, and he'll be "forced" to do this so he can be properly victimized by the evil white men.

Motley, who two paragraphs ago the narration assured us would want to hire Yellow Hair in different circumstances, is furious at Yellow Hair because those Orkneymen cost an eight-pound bounty apiece, and screams enough insults at the white Indian that the survivng HBC men become convinced that "it was a matter of world-wide importance on which hung the fate of the H.B.C. to capture Yellow Hair."

Yes, capture.  They're under the impression that Yellow Hair already led a war party that ambushed and scalped five of their own, and now who knows how many more have been killed during this mismanaged siege, but they're still set on taking him alive so there's something left to kill.  Doesn't matter that he's resisting arrest with gusto, and it doesn't matter how many they lose in the process, they're gonna subdue this savage and show him what civilized justice looks like.

You know, in between shooting at him with a cannon.

Violence acts upon men as variously as whiskey.  It makes them happy, sad, brave or craven.  Violence is, in fact, a much greater stimulus than spirits because it usually quickens reaction while whiskey deadens it.

So if someone drunk off his ass gets in a shootout, he winds up somewhere around normal?

That can't be right, because the narration assures us that "Violence made Major Alexander McGlincy more imperial than ever," which is to say that he sits out of Yellow Hair's firing arc, shouting orders that no one can hear and pointing out things with the bottom of his whiskey bottle.  Luberly meanwhile is darting about with a pistol, very visibly playing a part in the battle without actually doing anything or approaching the trade room door.  The rest of the Nor'Westers are AWOL, the only people actually fighting are Motley's Orkneymen.

Poor Orkneymen.  The narration observes that since their only part to play in the battle was actually fighting it, "their reaction needs no further illumination."  I guess Hubbard is satirizing history's tendency to focus on glorious generals and warlords rather than the common grunts who actually bled and died in mankind's wars, by focusing on the glorious major and named characters rather than the common grunts who are actually getting killed by the book's hero.

Said hero is having, more or less, a pretty good time.  "While not exactly happy about it, Yellow Hair was exultant," and fearlessly faces death by shouting insults and taunts.

Yellow Hair would fire at a fleeting smoke shadow and yip, "Stand still!  How can I hit you when you move?  Come on, you bullies, line up for another attack.  You can take me this time!  I'm waiting, my heroes!  Come on, come in, you're welcome to my lead!  Have a slug!  You there, stand still?"

Remember, "no lust for killing, and indeed no interest in it."

The narration gets downright sardonic, assuring us that "the odds against him were not so great as they initially appeared."  After all, there's only forty-one men outside Yellow Hair's room, with a mere two cannons (not counting the barge's howitzer), sixteen cutlasses, and an undisclosed number of muskets and pistols.  The trading room was constructed to withstand a siege like a castle keep, and apart from the door, a window, the rear wall, part of the counter, and a third of the roof, it's in pretty good condition.  The only fires are at the entrance and the wall near the powder kegs, and though Yellow Hair is blackened with soot, slightly deafened by cannonfire, and can't see out of his right eye due to the bloody gash over it, his trigger-hand is only slightly scorched from that musket that misfired, so he's still putting up a fight.

My problem with this section is that it, while competently-written and appealing to my sense of humor, falls apart when compared with the rest of the story.  It's hard to take this tongue-in-cheek examination of the odds against Yellow Hair seriously when there is absolutely no dramatic tension that he's going to be killed this chapter.  And by pointing out the absurdities of this situation here, I have to wonder why the author didn't call our attention to all the other absurd things that happen in his story.  As it is, it's like Hubbard is going "I'm not saying my main character is awesome - but here's how awesome he is."

Oh, and he also works in more "evil white men victimizing the Indians" stuff.  The trading room is easily-defensible in case any visiting natives "treacherously objected to the theft of furs or the murder of a chief or some other foolish incidental," and there's a space on the roof for a cannon that can be aimed down to fire grapeshot "straight into a crowd of warriors, women and children who had, in foolish faith, come to trade."  At this point I'm wondering whether the whole fur trading nonsense was just an excuse for evil white guys to go out west and kill some Indians.  They're certainly not being good businessmen, antagonizing and going to such lengths to murder their customers, suppliers, and neighbors who outnumber them by a considerable margin.

But all fight scenes must eventually come to an end.  Yellow Hair taunts for McGlincy or Luberly to show themselves, calls out some of the other Nor'Westers by name (not that we hear them, so they remain nameless extras), thanks his hosts for setting a fire to keep him warm, and talks about how impressed their women will be once they bring home his scalp.  But eventually the smoke gets to him, blinding him and choking his lungs, and he can't reload his muskets anymore due to his hand injury, so he grabs his pistol and approaches the door, hoping to bring down McGlincy with his last shot.  At that moment, Motley's cannon fires, the roof collapses, and a falling beam knocks our hero out.  "To all appearances he was dead and to this he owed his life."

So... after spending the whole chapter not firing their weapons - seriously, I can't find a single case of an ordinary musket or pistol being fired at Yellow Hair - and trying to capture this enemy, if Yellow Hair had walked out of there on his own, they would have killed him?

Meh.  Makes as much sense as shooting all those cannonballs at him.

Satisfaction flooded Motley.

Because the guy he was trying to capture alive by shooting a cannon at is apparently dead, right.

He belted his own pistol and strode ahead to turn Yellow Hair over with his foot.  When the boot toe had finished its prodding, Yellow Hair was on his back with outflung arms, blackened locks damply lying in the dust.

So, if we read too much into these words, Yellow Hair only became a proper Indian - darker skin, blackened hair - by engaging in desperate violence against white men.  Or maybe this symbolizes how their cruel betrayal of his trust has driven him firmly into the Blackfoot's camp?  No, that one doesn't work, he already considered himself a Pikuni and never actually liked these people.

Motley hauled him aside by one foot and, belatedly, began to sort out the wounded from the dead.

And that's "Under Fire," in which our hero holds out against unbelievable odds thanks to his opponents being nice enough to forgo shooting at him with small arms in their efforts to capture him alive, until he succumbs because those opponents aren't nice enough to forgo shooting at him with a cannon in their efforts to capture him.  It's an action scene that unfolds thanks to some questionable decisions intended to bring about a specific outcome that the plot requires, much like the non-action-y parts of the story.

Hey, where was Father Marc during all this?

Back to Chapter 13 

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