See, we were told all about the legend that sprung up around Yellow Hair, which inflated his farcical shootout in Fort Chesterfield into a demonic campaign of slaughter and savagery. But there's a problem with that - this is all taking place before radios, zeppelins, or even roads linked the settlements of the North American frontier. The way Chapter 16 was written, it sounded like as soon as Yellow Hair showed up at York Factory, everyone recognized him as the blood-painted psycho on the giant horse who eats babies, except that would imply that tales about Yellow Hair somehow outpaced Yellow Hair himself, even when he was being shipped north at the same speed that word of mouth would be traveling by.
But like I said, the first sentence of this chapter addresses that issue: "Father Marc Lettau remained on Hudson's Bay until early fall trying in vain to bring about a fair trial for Yellow Hair." Yes, the author has decided to pull another timeskip, jumping from the very earliest part of spring to the start of autumn. So it's conceivable that when Yellow Hair was delivered to York Factory, the initial response was "Who?" And then Motley told him all about the ambush and shootout, and then all the other stuff came in along the grapevine, as promised in the title of Chapter 16.
We're not told this, of course. There's no description of the authorities' difficulty sifting through truth and rumor to determine what crimes their prisoner actually committed, or even a scene where the evil white men eagerly accept whatever vicious slander they hear about the accused. We're not told a lot of things, in fact.
We are told that York Factory is smaller than you might think, and mainly consists of a big red building with five cannons mounted on it, surrounded by four bastions for the barracks and trading posts and whatnot, all ringed by a wooden palisade and trench. The author notes that "Just why this place was so opposingly built will forever remain a mystery" because the outpost gained a reputation for surrendering during raids or wars with the French, opening "its arms to any attacker like a true soldier's sweetheart." And I must say that these islets of good writing just make the sea of badness surrounding them all the more depressing to paddle through.
We're told that York Factory is eight hundred miles from Fort Chesterfield on the South Saskatchewan, and a thousand miles from Fort William on Lake Superior. The main waterways linking it to the rest of the world are the Nelson River to the west, and of course Hudson's Straight and the Bay itself through which ships sail to and from England. This makes the place pretty isolated from the rest of the world, which is why, we're told, Father Marc feels pretty lonely.
We're just not told much of anything about what happened between Marc and Yellow Hair arriving at the outpost and now, when Father Marc is having one last interview with its governor before leaving it. We aren't even told the governor's name. But that's the bulk of this measly little chapter, the Mighty Monk's conversation with the Nameless Governor.
Father Marc greets the chap with some Latin he knows the other man doesn't understand, then asks (again? or for the very first time, after half a year?) how long they intend to hold Yellow Hair without trial - the latest ships just set sail for England without him aboard, and I guess that's the only place you can hold a trial. The governor counters that it's bold of a priest, especially a Nor'Wester priest, to criticize "our" justice like that. Father Marc counters that it's the nameless governor who is bold, for claiming to rule a domain three times the size of Europe based on a charter written up by a century-dead monarch... oy, what few things the author is telling us are things he already told us in Chapter 8.
Anyway, Marc drops his trump card: "this youth you have penned up is, by rights, a subject of the United States of America, a member of a powerful and warlike tribe and a gentlemen in his own right by birth which---begging Your Excellency's pardon---can hardly be matched by any member of the Nor'Westers or Hudson's Bay Company either." Or I guess Father Marc dropped a couple of cards that had gotten stuck together, because this statement contains several different thoughts.
The first one, that Yellow Hair is a US citizen, might finally answer the question of why he needs to be a white guy - so Marc can use the possibility of legal conflict with the United States to get the British-Canadian government to at the very least hand him over to a different justice system. Now, I'm not sure whether this idea is legally sound, because I'm not sure whether Yellow Hair was born among the Pikuni or out east in the Untied States proper. I could start flipping through the book to try to answer the question, but why bother? Because the governor completely ignores this part of the argument.
The second of Marc's assertions is that Yellow Hair is a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy, a mighty tribal group feared throughout the northern Great Plains and beyond. This at least is hard to argue with, and it carries the threat of real consequences for a trading company that relies so heavily on the indigenous population to supply the furs it covets. If word gets out about Yellow Hair's long incarceration, people could die; at the same time, reaching out to the natives and trying to find a mutually-satisfying sentence for this murderer could build some valuable goodwill. Again, the governor ignores this.
Instead Nameless Governor focuses on Marc daring to suggest that this savage is a "gentleman" - even though Marc has tried to explain what really happened, the governor puts his trust in those scalps and the signed affidavit from Motley. So it serves the murderer right if he suffers in a cell for month after month. "There will be no trial, priest." Yellow Hair will languish in legal limbo, jailed for crimes that will never be examined by a court of law, in colonial Canada's equivalent to Guantanamo Bay.
As for Marc, Nameless Governor says he's just received word that there is an Indian canoe on the river, and that a supply officer will provide the priest with some provisions, and that Father Marc could make it to Fort William in about two or three months. I'm not sure how these facts fit together. Marc works for the Nor'Westers, right? So can Nameless Governor, who is in charge of what must be a Hudson's Bay Company outpost, even order him to leave? And why would Marc be going to Fort William if he wasn't being ordered by this guy he doesn't work for? I get that he would be in danger if he returned to Fort Chesterfield, but looking at the map at the front of the book, it seems that he has plenty of other options - Edmonton, Big Falls Post, Pembina, and so on.
But the Mighty Monk sees the order in those sentences that I don't, though he won't walk out without getting in the last word.
"Worthy of the English," said Father Marc with an amused grin. "You fear my testimony will make your vengeance less complete and you ship me off to get me out of the way and to hope that alternate freezes and thaws will prevent my ever arriving at Fort William.
Didn't we just establish that there was never going to be a trial?
Ah, well, Your Excellency, it is most revealing. I never would have thought it of you. 'Lords of the Outer Marches,' eh? Let's hope you know a trick or two about walking on coals in the hereafter."
And then he departs the room with a "roar of laughter," leaving the shaken governor, "sitting fatly in his chair," worrying about his immortal soul for the first time in a while. The next day Father Marc takes his baggage, which includes Yellow Hair's stuff since he's convinced that he'll never see his friend again and doesn't want his clothes and war kit confiscated by the HBC, gets in a boat, and starts paddling up the Nelson River on his long journey to Fort William. The journey that Father Marc thinks is an attempt to kill him.
Huh. Well, I'm sure he has his reasons for this, but - say it with me now - we're never told them.
Back to Chapter 16