Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Buckskin Brigades - Chapter 18, part 2 - Raise the Roof

Alright, so a hungry and cold Yellow Hair has hallucinated a conversation with his shallow female love interest, which inspired him to make presumably his first escape attempt in half a year of captivity.  So let's get out of here already.

Our hero presses against the wall of his outhouse holding cell, spying on the guards outside through a crack.  Yellow Hair is such an important prisoner that two men have been put on a constant patrol outside his cell, thus depriving the frontier trading post of valuable manpower solely to keep someone in legal limbo until I guess he dies of malnourishment or exposure (incidentally, I wonder how much it costs to keep Gitmo going?).  Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night will keep these stalwart and unimaginative mooks from pacing back and forth between a lantern sitting on the ground at the front of the outhouse and its back wall.

They have a little chat while doing so, pausing during their conversation until they meet again on the opposite side of the little building.  And so, decades before experiencing Hubbard's mangled and obnoxious attempts to transcribe Southern accents, we get to see his take on an English accent.  As far as I can tell, the key seems to be dropping H's from some (but not all) words and adding them to others.

"Hi wager'e don't myke it."

Meeting behind the house, the other one said, "Hi bet the bloke does. 'E's brawny and..."

Presently, behind the house, he concluded "...'e's got a lot of beef to tide him over."

At the lantern the other said, "Hi think 'e'll need more'n 'is own fat, Roger. Hit's..."

Behind the house, "...more'n a thousand bitter miles to Fort Will'm. 'Ow much?"

But not a single "bloody" or "bleedin'" to be seen, oddly enough.

The narration then confirms one of my criticisms by mentioning that this conversation isn't new - Yellow Hair has heard it going on for "so many weary days" that he's been tuning it out.  But this night he actually listens to it, even though he's had literally nothing else to do for months now, so he has no excuse for not paying attention to what his captors are saying.  And this night, after two hours of attentive listening... well, they are speaking with Hubbard's English accents.  Anyway, Yellow Hair is able to deduce that the guards are talking about Father Marc's imminent departure.

First there had been Bright Star's voice.

And now the example of Father Marc.

He could not fail at this!

Weak and gaunt as he was, excitement made him forget the cold and gave him fitful strength.

At least the author isn't forgetting that the main character is in terrible shape for an escape attempt.  He's just saying that our hero is too awesome to let that stop him.  Guess that's what makes him a hero.

So, how hard is it to bust out of his personal, one-room prison?

He reached up to a beam and swung his length over it.  He jabbed tentative fingers at the leaking roof and found the shingles to be as rotten as any trading policy.

What, the shingles had an inexplicable fondness for animal pelts and was willing to part with incredible new weapons for a stack of them?  The roof liked to brutalize and murder its trading partners for the sake of evil, even though doing so made terrible business sense?

Eagerly he thrust his hand through and pushed sidewise, widening the gap.  He balanced himself on the beam and thrust his head out into the dripping night.

One of the shingles comes loose, slides down the roof, and hits the mud by the lantern.  And the guards actually hear it and come investigate,

But Yellow Hair had no desire to wait for their comment upon it.  He was all the way out through the rickety roof and had gripped the soggy ridge-pole, lowering himself on the other side and down.

Yep, it's that easy.  Just a few good shoves to knock the rotten wood out and he's clear.  Now, a question, Hubbard:

Why didn't he try this his first night in the cell?!

The least you could do is indicate that Yellow Hair already inspected the holes in the roof, but the wood was still sturdy at the start of his captivity, and now only after half a year of intermittent bad weather has it decayed to the point he can tear it apart with his hands.  Instead it looks like it took months and months for him to think to look up.

Ugh.  So Yellow Hair drops down on the far side of the outhouse, and immediately orients himself - his back is to York Factory's main building, so he needs to circle around his cell to reach the palisades.  The narration reminds us that it would only take a few seconds for his guards to decide that they needed to check inside the cell, and that "It was therefore asking quite a bit of Yellow Hair that he had to map his whole strategy for the next hour in the same length of time that it would take for the guards to realize that he was gone."

Why hasn't he been dreaming up escape plans for the past six months?!  Why hasn't he been constantly watching things through the crack in the wall, gathering information about how the outpost operates and thinking about how to take advantage of it?  What has he been doing all day?

Lack of inertia, that's the problem here.  In a well-crafted story, both the setting and the characters in it feel real, and the reader can imagine how they'd behave even if they weren't "on-screen," so to speak.  But here it's like Yellow Hair entered stasis the minute he was brought to York Factory.  He hasn't formulated an escape plan, he hasn't made an escape attempt, and it's hard to believe that he's thought of his beloved Bright Star because doing so inspired him to escape tonight, and since he hadn't escaped before tonight, QED.

At least during the last timeskip he learned a second language.

Alright, so he's loose in an enemy stronghold.  The author makes a wry observation about military training by mentioning that nobody taught Yellow Hair that "the less a soldier thinks the better the soldier."  I guess Hubbard was still bitter about being removed from command for disregarding orders, violating Mexican waters, and carrying out unsanctioned gunnery practice on foreign soil.  Anyway, Yellow Hair sneaks like a "greased shadow" around the building and sees the guards holding their guns and the lantern, about to open the cell door.

The author, hexperienced soljer that he is, spends two brief paragraphs explaining the folly of lanterns, which allow guards to see about ten feet of ground while destroying their night vision and ability to see beyond that.  Or in other words, even when they're facing Yellow Hair, they can't see him in the darkness beyond the lanternlight, so while they're making a bet on whether or not he's still in his cell, our hero slips past, goes behind a "sentry box," and reaches the fort's gate.

Rather than trying to open it, Yellow Hair attempts to climb to freedom, but the gate is nine feet tall and between the rain and his ruined moccasins, he can't get any purchase.  At this point the guards raise the alarm, and the action sequence begins.  A soldier is jolted awake in the sentry box, grabs his rifle, leaps out, brushes torn buckskin, and immediately realizes the enemy is near.  All before Yellow Hair can react or hide or anything, evidently.

A seasoned campaigner on many far-flung fronts, this soldier knew better than to advance.  He leaped back to raise his rifle.

Yellow Hair snatched at the muzzle.  It exploded.  The tongue of red sparks lanced over his head.

Yellow Hair shoved hard and then quickly gave the barrel a twist and a pull.  It came free.

Um, the author means that Yellow Hair snatched the gun out of the guard's hands by its barrel, not that he tore the gun's metal barrel from the wooden stock.

The guard is wise enough to run for help, leaving Yellow Hair holding an empty musket by the wrong end.  Our hero despairs for a moment, then brandishes his improvised club after resolving "to go down like a warrior should---fighting."  But then he notices that this musket has a strap on it so it can be worn on the shoulder, and as lantern-bearing guards approach, Yellow Hair unbuckles the length of leather, ties a knot, and casts it up to catch on the top of the pointy palisade.  He's able to pull himself up the wall, but he's nearly dislodged when the guards fire and something knocks his right arm forward, leaving him dangling by one hand.

Things get (even more?) farcical - the guards try and shoot the piƱata but their soaked guns fail to fire, an officer spends a paragraph being mocked by the narrator for waving his sword about theatrically to order a charge, the guy stabs but Yellow Hair swings away, and now there's a saber protruding from the wooden wall.  Our hero uses the sword as a stepping stone, remembers to quip "Hyai, you redcoats!  Thanks!"  And then he's over and rolling down the muddy slope on the far side.

Now we're told my Yellow Hair didn't try to just open the fort door, because it's bolted and double-locked.  So in other words, the jam of people trying to exit through it means that it's some time before they're able to open it.  While they're struggling, Yellow Hair runs to the boathouse on the shore, breaks in, tosses all the extra oars into the Nelson River, and steals a canoe.

Our hero's right arm is mostly getting in the way - and come to think of it, we weren't told about any flash of pain, were we?  Just that his arm got knocked by something.  Must be adrenaline.  Anyway, Yellow Hair has to tuck it into his belt while he's doing all this, and is out on the river by the time the guards manage to free themselves from their own defenses.  They reach the shore, ready, aim, misfire due to the rain.  What are the odds.

Now, the author points out that it's pretty hard to row a boat with one hand.  Hubbard also acknowledges that the Pikuni were not river people, shunned the eating of fish, and "believed---along with the Greeks, English sailors, and famous explorers---that there was such a thing as an underwater people, governed by a sort of Neptune that took the form of a beaver."  Yellow Hair's only experience with boats, in fact, was the ride to his prison.  "But it attests to his ready adaptability that the mechanics of his unusual problem should be so quickly met and defeated---in some measure."

In other words, he's once again acknowledging the odds against Yellow Hair, just to make his hero even more awesome for overcoming them.  Yellow Hair manages to stick one oar against the side of the boat and brace it with a leg to use it as a "peg" to row forward against, or something like that.  Our narrator assures us that this is coincidentally a technique that the Scandinavians use, though of course Yellow Hair doesn't know that.  But aren't you glad that you know it now, reader?

The last page or so sums up the situation at the end of this chapter.  Our hero has suddenly escaped, and is making his way somewhat erratically along the river.  The rain and cold are getting in his wounded arm, what little strength he has left from his long starvation is on the verge of failing, his clothes are ragged, he's got no provisions or weapons, it's actually late autumn so ice is starting to form on the stream's quiet patches, and Father Marc is both a better rower and has a half day's head start on him.  Could our hero, in fact, be boned?

The impossible was only improbable to Yellow Hair.  He was one of those rare beings who never find out, this side of death, that there is such a thing as being whipped by men and destiny.  Such ignorance is divine.  His eyes were fixed upon an object so far in advance that he only had impatience for all the hurdles that intervened---which is probably as good a key as any to his restlessness.

I thought he was just a stupid young glory hound, not someone heroically ignorant.

He might be wounded, starved and hunted in an alien land.

But he knew only one thing.  He had to catch up to Father Marc.

Given that Chapter 21 is called "The Reunion," I think we can all guess how this quest will end.

Back to Chapter 18, part 1

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