A Land Apart

A few years ago I engaged in a largely insane detour of creative focus. I wrote and illustrated a novel of historical fiction about the life of Etienne Brulé. He was the first European to go hundreds of miles into the wilderness to live with one of the indigenous tribes in what is now Ontario. It was 1608.

Here are a few of the 26 illustrations I did for that project, along with a few reference photos I used to paint from and one of the rough sketches.

All the paintings were ivory black, raw umber and white oil paint on gessoed board. The width is generally 20″ wide.

Below the images I have added the opening scene of the novel.

Opening Scene

He strokes his fingers along the polished mahogany stock of the musket, caressing it slowly, the way a more sensual man might caress the skin of a lover. His hand curls around the cool black wrought iron of the barrel. The oil on the metal smells sweet. He hoists the musket to his shoulder, pulling the stock in tight as he had been instructed. Sighting down the barrel, he sees only wide-open lake. Slowly he pivots toward land. As the muzzle swings toward them, the English traders duck and scatter out of the way. The soldiers, standing to one side, anxiously raise their own guns in self-defense. Totiri ignores them all.

Staring down the barrel of the musket at a tree trunk several yards away, he pulls the stock in tight again, holds the barrel steady and slowly squeezes the trigger. The flintlock releases with a click and then three powerful, exhilarating sensations hit him at once: the kick of the musket hard into his shoulder, the deafening roar, and the dense, acrid smell of burnt powder smoke. His ears ring as the musket ball strikes the tree and the crashing echo of his shot rolls back from across the lake.

Slowly and carefully, the Iroquois war chief lowers the gun. Never has he experienced such a powerful sensory affront. He revels in its sheer intensity as he slowly regains his equilibrium. Totiri knew before lifting the musket that he wanted it; now the desire consumes him. He holds the musket tight in his grip, unsure what this power is, unsettled by it, knowing only that he is awed by its dark spirit. He looks up, suddenly aware once again of his surroundings. And the English, and his reason for being here – to trade furs for this thundermaker he now holds. But Totiri knows they’ve seen his lust. That is not good. That is weakness.

A British soldier leans towards a comrade, his eyes and musket at the ready, “Like baring your neck to wolves.” His friend nods, aware of the tenuous and dangerous alliance they now forge. “I do not see any good coming from this.”

Handing the gun to an Iroquois warrior beside him, Totiri turns his attention to the English trader. The tension between them is palpable. Totiri eyes the long, wooden cases filled with guns. And several more cases laying behind the traders. He wants them all. He nods at the furs his hunters have brought. The trader flips the furs with a dismissive gesture, implying their inferior quality.

Totiri snarls at the insult. The trader steps back, cringing despite himself, at the intensity of the man’s anger. He has never encountered anyone like Totiri. The war chief bristles with a current of menace and cruelty. Battle scars cover his arms and chest. The trader knows he has the upper hand; he knows how much the Iroquois crave these muskets. He knows he mustn’t back down. But he does, holding the war chief’s gaze as long as he can. But he soon folds, unable to withstand the chilling hostility any longer.This is barter and the trader knows he’s losing. He adds two more kegs of powder and several boxes of shot. He tries to smile, but his fear betrays him, a line of cold sweat runs down the inside of his shirt, another down his forehead into his eyes. Totiri takes him in with undisguised scorn. Then, with the slightest hint of a nod from the chief, his warriors move toward the muskets, powder and shot. The six English soldiers hold their guns loosely at the ready, sensing the danger of the Iroquois suddenly as a group moving toward them. Totiri eyes each case and crate and when the last one passes, he casts a long, last look at the remaining cases behind the traders.

As the last Iroquois turns to go, one of the traders suddenly crosses his path, quietly handing him a small bottle of dark liquid. It is a movement Totiri does not miss. With two swift strides he grabs the bottle, pitches and smashes it on the rocks and strikes the warrior hard across the face with the backhand motion of his throw. As the trader stumbles backwards onto the ground, six soldiers raise their guns at the war chief. Totiri slowly lifts his gaze, staring with disdain straight into their muskets. He knows they wouldn’t dare. He turns his back and walks with a deliberate, slow pace away from the white men, relishing their discomfort. He can smell it.