God built Lake Superior.
The Nor'Westers built Fort William.
Simple, direct, dramatic. You can just hear the words narrated at the start of some documentary as the camera zooms in low over the waters of the lake to the settlement on its shore.
The recipe for the place called for stone, lead, logs, rum, logs, mud, rum, knives, rifles, rum, nails, cannon, shot, rum, pelts, traps, canoes, rum, mud, water, axes, logs, paint, augers, rum, pegs, rum, mud, and, of course, plans.
Aaand there goes the gravitas. Borderline Monty Python sketch, that was.
The author spends a full two pages establishing this new setting. He discusses the great variety of people who live in Fort William: Swedes, French, folks from all of the British Isles, Indians, ranging from scum recruited from jails and woman and children come to settle the New World, some fifteen hundred or two thousand in all We're told about the eighteen-foot-high "scowling slab palisade" and the fact that it doesn't protect the log homes of the Indians who actually make the fur trade possible. The place's history is briefly touched upon, how it passed from US to British territory with the Boundary Settlement of Hubbard Doesn't Say, and how Fort William sits on the boundary between civilization and the wild, lands disputed by both the HBC and Nor'Westers, and which of course actually belonged to the Indians.
I have to say, Hubbard bringing up the fact that the Indians are the proper owners of these lands every other chapter is somehow making me less sympathetic towards the victims of centuries of abuse and exploitation by white settlers. Don't pick L. Ron Hubbard as your advocate, folks.
After one more note that the settlement of the region is advancing because the local Indians are dying out from disease, which the religious believe is divine punishment for their heathen beliefs, and the government believes is due to their "stubborn insistence that they owned the country"... sigh. Let's just start the chapter already.
A fort sentry announces that a dog travois is approaching, which excites everyone because to arrive right at the spring thaw means that these new arrivals must've traveled through the dead of winter, and maybe they have news about the raids and the British. So when the gates open there's a rush for "grandstand seats," which feels like an anachronistic metaphor that ruins my immersion in the story. And among the crowd of onlookers is someone who must be important to the story, otherwise the author is wasting a lot of words on a bit character.
One of these was a girl, not more than twenty-one years of age but for all that possessing the arts and graces of the most accomplished courtier. She was very blonde, very slender and very poised. The silk of her flowing gown shimmered below the limits of her encompassing cloak. She walked with the proud tread of an empress---which indeed was her position if not her title in the huge fort. When she paused to wait the coming of the strangers she stood so well that it appeared instantly that these men were arriving solely for her pleasure.
Now, I know our hero Yellow Hair is committed to the lovely Bright Star, and even thought about her once during a half-year captivity. But does she now have some competition? Could this be the start of a love triangle and some romantic tension? This newcomer does have a lot of traits we've seen/will see in previous/future Hubbard Love Interests.
This is actually a suspenseful development because the cliche could go either way. Will the white man raised as a noble savage fall for a white woman who leads him back into civilization, or stay true to his adopted people and marry the chief's daughter? Not that I know who the Pikuni's chief is. Hell, we still don't now that their village is called.
Anyway, with this potential love interest are two men. One is her father, worthy of only a sentence describing him as bent and "warped." The other is a fella who gets a full page introduction, and deserves it "because of his ultimate influence on Yellow Hair's destiny." He's tall and slender, stands up so straight he's almost bending backwards, haughty in the way that McGlincy is "majestic," a man of ruffles and a cape and gold-buckled shoes who is standing on a blanket so not to get those shoes muddy. But most of all,
The gentleman also had a mustache. But this is no incidental mention of that cherished article. It is reserved until last because the last thing said always makes the best impression---or the worst.
It's a mustache whose owner is first described as playing with it, until the narrator backtracks and says he's more accurately stroking the thing like a beloved pet. It's a mustache so carefully waxed and spiked that some at the fort are concerned that it might puncture its owner's skull if he ever fell on his face. In fact, maybe we should be referring to it as The Mustache.
And I have to say, I rather like this. It's silly but does a great job of establishing a character, even if they're more a caricature then a deep, complex human being.
We get our conflict and tension for the chapter when Yellow Hair, getting kinda hysteric from exhaustion, sees a mustache unconnected to a beard for the first time in his life, and laughs out loud at it. He nudges Father Marc, the padre nervously pokes him back, and Yellow Hair shuts up. But the damage is done.
Yellow Hair might have murdered every man in the place with more impunity. He might have laughed at his lordship's shoes and even gotten away with it. But he made the fatal error of stabbing ridicule at the most cherished thing his lordship possessed.
So the bearer of The Mustache draws his sword, then notices that Yellow Hair is packing a pistol, rifle and knife, tries to just as quickly sheathe his sword, tosses his head and snorts like a horse, and in the process of all this forces the girl at his side to dodge his movements. For all her grace she nearly falls down, but Yellow Hair, exhaustion or no, is able to dart in and lend a hand to steady her. Uh oh.
He stopped laughing. His mouth went slightly open and his hand swooped up to cover it in that time-honored Pikuni exclamation of surprise.
A white woman?
Now who would ever have believed there was such a thing as a white woman in this world?
Impossible. Some medicine pipe dream.
So where did Yellow Hair think all those white guys came from? Did he assume that whenever those voyageurs talked about girls they were referring to Indian women?
And why did he notice The Mustache before this incredible, pale-faced woman?
But there she was with her pretty gray eyes looking sideways at his handsome, if startled, face. She appeared to be rapt in contemplation of so pleasing an object, but in reality she took in everything about him. The face of a well-bred gentleman, the eyes of a gallant who would dare anything, even death, with a laugh, the well-sculpt body of an athlete, the strong hands of an artist.
She was pleased.
She narrowed her look and made it very sweet.
Uh oh. My YellowStar ship is under threat.
Luckily Father Marc butts in "to avoid a possible massacre," and explains to Yellow Hair who these people are, which is nice because the narrator didn't. The Mustache belongs to Lord Strathleigh, the greatest duelist in either England or France, who spends a hundred pounds a year maintaining it and will suffer no mockery of its glory. The girl is his future wife, miss Evelyn Lee, and the twisted old guy was just "Lee, the great fur buyer." And in hindsight, maybe Father Marc should've talked about the important figures at Fort William before he and Yellow Hair arrived, and stressed the importance of respecting The Mustache. But it's been a very long winter, so we can cut him some slack. Besides, this way we have some potential conflict.
At this point Old Simon MacIntosh bursts onto the scene to welcome "priest" and "the savage" who have got the English's crumpets in a twist. He's no mustache, so all we're told about him is that he's "gnarled and canny," "wrinkled and cunning." Old Simon promises that he's got plenty of work for a "good killer" and leads them off to get drunk, "the highest honor Old Simon could present to any man." Priests in this story are kinda weird.
So, big chapter - we get several important introductions and the promise of future conflict, most likely involving Miss Evelyn's notice of Yellow Hair earning the ire of her future husband, The Mustache. And will Yellow Hair will end up with Bright Star or this new girl? I dunno, I'm not actually interested enough to read ahead.
Wait, the Blackfoot occasionally practice polygamy. That kinda defuses the potential love triangle a bit, doesn't it?
Back to Chapter 23