A Special Thursday Post by Thomm...
Rather than my usual of looking at a long arc of a book, or even its entire run, I'm going to take a look at the Bad Mothers chapter of Scalped, Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera's master work. It's akin to looking at just one chapter in an unfinished book, but it's one of my favorite arcs in the story and one of the most pivotal. It can be viewed as a short story all its own, too.
From the beginning Gina Bad Horse is dead, found along a road not far from her abandoned car. Reading previous issues lets the reader know that she was returning to the reservation from visiting Lawrence in prison when she was murdered, but that's not necessary for understanding what's happening. The story opens with Red Crow sitting by her body, reflecting, while tribal police are hanging back, waiting for his orders.
Meanwhile, Dash Bad Horse is his usual kick ass self, busting meth houses and employing heavy physical threats to get information out of suspects. In this particular meth house a body is found. The woman is a naked, strangled meth addict. Her five kids, the oldest of whom is 12, are in a room next door. Her name is Pamela Bittan, and she's our second dead mother.
Dash is entirely unmoved when eventually told of his mother's death, but Red Crow is determined to find the killer. Dash is moved, in time, by Pamela Bittan's death because 1) it's his case, and 2) Shelton, the oldest Bittan kid, ends up befriending Dash when he comes to the precinct every day to find out of the killer's been caught.
It doesn't take long to figure out Bittan's killer is Deisel, a blonde guy who claims he's part Kickapoo and, as it turns out, is an undercover agent for the FBI, as is Dash. Of course, that's a problem. Agent Nitz, who's in charge of the FBI on the reservation, doesn't want Deisel arrested or his cover blown. He doesn't care about Deisel killing a meth addict, or that Deisel's a meth addict himself. He just wants to take down Red Crow and any of his cohorts (including Gina) who Nitz holds responsible for the deaths of two FBI agents in the '70s.
Aaron sprinkles in a bit of back story with a flashback to Dash's childhood when Gina is trying to teach him about Lakota lore. They're visiting a cave that was the entrance to the inner world where the Lakota lived in happiness and plenty until a trickster lured them to the surface with promises of abundant resources that didn't exist, even before the Europeans came and killed off the bison. Dash doesn't want to hear it. There's also a scene when he's a teenager where Gina has acquired some arrowheads for Dash's collection. He ignores her, continuing to read a magazine and listening to whatever's eminating from the headphones he only briefly takes off at Gina's insistence.
This back story meshes with Dash's developing relationship with Shelton. Dash takes him out and teaches him to shoot a pistol. Dash takes him camping. After learning he's inherited Gina's house, the home in which he was raised, Dash finds the arrowheads he once collected nicely presented in a shadow box, something Gina had obviously done for him but he had never seen. When Shelton's relatives come down from Canada to take him and his siblings, Dash gives Shelton the shadow box.
The problem with getting Deisel, though, is that he's in Nebraska, out of the reservation. The local sheriff, a rather stereotypical bigot named Karnow, won't cooperate, in part because the bars and liquor stores in his town, White Haven (which is more than a little heavy handed on Aaron's part), are losing business since Red Crow opened his casino, which sells alcohol. Red Crow was supposed to only allow out of town visitors to drink at the casino, not the local drunks who keep White Haven afloat when they come across the border. See, other than the casino, the reservation is dry.
Unfortunately, Shelton runs away from his relatives and trades the arrowheads to some drunks for a ride and a gun. He gets to Nebraska and tries to kill Deisel but isn't a very good shot. Deisel shoots him dead. Dash pulls over the drunks on a DUI and sees the arrowheads. He immediately heads to Nebraska when the drunks tell him of the trade for the gun, but Shelton is dead already. Deisel is under arrest, on his knees with his hands behind his head, but Dash tries to kill him. Shots to the shoulder and leg don't get the job done, and Sherrif Karnow kicks Dash's gun out of his hand before he can get off any more shots.
This is probably the only heroic thing Karnow has ever done and is probably more motivated by animus toward Dash and Red Crow. Aside from his anger about lost business in his town, in their earlier meeting Dash had called out Karnow on his alleged service in combat in Vietnam, as Dash's jump instructor was a member of the unit Karnow claimed and that unit was out of Vietnam 2 years before Karnow claimed he was there. On top of that, Dash corrected Karnow that High Noon starred Gary Cooper, not John Wayne.
Dash ends up back at his childhood home, broken. He doesn't attend the funeral for his mother.
In the meantime, Mr Brass, an agent of the Hmong gangster who has bankrolled the casino, has arrived in town. He's a sadist who's missing an arm. He's old enough to have been involved in the Vietnam War and that's probably where he learned his torture skills. He's there to make sure the Hmong money is not being wasted and to force Red Crow to toe the line.
Of course, there's suspicion run rampant throughout. Red Crow thinks Shunka might have killed Gina, though Red Crow had ordered no one to harm her. Nitz and Dash think Red Crow killed her. The tribal council just wants the whole thing to go away, coming right after the opening of the casino as it has and being bad for business. Red Crow ends up assigning Officer Falls Down, probably the only honest cop in the tribal police, to find out who killed Gina, giving him blanket authority and resources. Gina's murder is not solved in this arc, though we the readers are clued in in the epilogue whrre Catcher is doing his best Lady Macbeth.
Aaron also includes small appearances by important characters such as Carol Red Crow and Dino Poor Bear. Carol's in the throes of her addictions and mostly shows up in jail for Dash to get her released. Dino's working as a janitor at the casino and observes enough to see that Red Crow, upset at his treatment at the hands of the FBI and the murder of Gina, stomps a guy who was found trying to play weighted dice at craps.
There's a lot going on in these five issues and they've set up all the issues that have come since. The previous 12 issues had established who the basic players were, but it's the murder of Gina that sets the rest of the story in motion and underlies nearly all the chapters that have come since then. It's tight writing that puts together an excellent shove into the meat of what will happen. The only resolved story in this chapter is the murders of Pamela and Shelton Bittan, and even those are only resolved in the sense that we know who did it. We don't have any resolution of what happens to Deisel, other than his being taken into custody with a couple holes in him courtesy of Dash.
That's one line. We also have the line of Nitz being so angry at Red Crow and Gina. We have the line of the Hmong involvement in the casino and the torturer they've sent to monitor things. We have the relationship between Red Crow and Shunka, which involves a lot of trust, but now some misgivings. We have Red Crow's developing relationship with Dash. We have Red Crow's ongoing failed relationship with his daughter, Carol. Most importantly, we have the unresolved murder of Gina.
There's not much in the way of human kindness in this story and what there is results in hard feelings. Dash befriends Shelton, only to find him murdered. Red Crow feebly reaches out to Carol, only to have her yell at the unknown caller. Gina's kindness from the grave in, both in leaving the house to Dash and the creation of the shadow box for his arrowhead collection, is met with Dash's disdain and confusion. The mother he has despised for so long did something kindly for him and he has no ability to react to that with any kind of acceptance.
Mostly this is a story of hard people in hard circumstances. Kindness isn't in their composition and when it does show up, it has to be pushed away. That sums up the series so far and is what makes this chapter so great at setting it all in motion.