The Empty Chambers–Excerpt from ‘The Hangman’s Valley’
by Eland Robert Mann
Chapter 4–The Empty Chambers
In the ancient canyon called the Keystone Pass one phenomenon in particular was noticed amongst its few surviving travelers. Robin discovered it like the others before him, as soon as Sister stepped around the first sharp bend of the canyon and he took his first breath. The air of the canyon was impossibly heavy. It seemed saturated with complete stillness unlike any other place Robin had known. Robin coughed and gasped as if a rope had been tightened around his neck. When his initial fear subsided, he deepened his breath in the hope he might acclimate to the density and immobility of his surroundings. The thickness felt like a warm liquid, easy to let into Robin’s chest but difficult to force back out, making his eyes water and vision blur as his body rejected the weighty, enveloping calm. Though the canyon connected the windy prairie basin to the open valley beyond, its twists and turns through the mountains were so pointed and innumerable the air became trapped, never to squeeze out the other side. Nevertheless, creatures were known to pass through, but if they lingered longer than a day in the stagnant air the lack of oxygen drove their mind to madness, followed shortly by loss of bodily function and death. Even at its beginning Robin was already light headed, and, though he and Sister were similarly tired from a long day’s ride, he knew they must not rest until their exit from the Keystone Pass.
As his body adjusted to breathing in such a condition, the strangeness of his immediate surroundings began to creep into his conscious mind. The moon and stars were likely out, but Robin saw little of their faint light actually endure at the bottom of the canyon. He was without a torch or lantern, but his unpreparedness, for the time being, seemed forgiven. The canyon was well illuminated; the source, an eerie, incandescent moss which grew in patches on the walls and often seemed to glow quite bright. It was the only living thing Robin saw in the darkness, but he heard thousands of sounds of unknown origin echoing throughout the canyon. As Robin moved along the canyon floor, he encountered places where the walls stabbed in at points no wider than a buggy, while other times the canyon opened up into rooms as large as a church. Sound had a funny way of moving through these rooms and the condensed air. Robin thought he heard his own name called half a dozen times before he first replied.
“Hello?” Robin called, waiting.
There was no answer, save the unnaturally wavering pale light of the inanimate lichen on the wall. He continued forward, his nerves heightened before every bend in the passage.
After a while, he entered a patch of the canyon covered in total darkness, where Robin was required to grope the rock walls to feel his way forward. Unlike the rumored abilities of the colossus’s white horse, Sister was unable to see in the dark, and her wary steps told Robin she might be as afraid of the canyon as he was. Robin constantly whispered to her, rubbed her neck and patted her, as much for her own comfort as for his. Robin stopped his whisperings from time to time to listen intently, certain someone was whispering back. There were forks in the canyon up ahead, and the last thing he must let himself do was get lost in this echoing maze. Robin tried to remember the path he had overheard at the mission.
“They said ‘right, right, left, right, right?’” Robin asked Sister. “Or was it ‘right, right, left, right?’ I’m not sure. I guess if I return the opposite way I go left at the first juncture no matter what, though. So stay to the left and let’s try and spot this fork in the road.” Sister huffed back at him in agreement.
Robin was glad he kept his eyes on the left, because, but for a thin void, the glowing moss continued along the walls; he nearly missed the forking path had the void not caught his eye. The fork extended away at a perpendicular angle, whilst the rest of the canyon continued on into unknown depths. Robin took sister left and headed into the darkness, the welcomed moss declining the opportunity to accompany them. They proceeded in the absence of light, and for such a long ways as to spark uncertainty within Robin.
“Does this part of the trail not have the moss?” he asked. “Have I missed another turn? Is this the right way, or did I not remember it right?” He stopped talking out loud, as every burst of his voice perversely echoed throughout the whole canyon, and they were both already too unnerved.
Feeling with his hands, Robin came around another sharp bend until the trail opened up into a large, lofty chamber, the glowing moss finally returning to the walls and the walls to his sight. And, most unexpectedly, standing before him in the middle of the chamber was the only man Robin had ever killed.
Robin was shocked to the point he nearly fell backward off Sister. The apparition, however, stood unmoving in the center, threatening to go neither backward nor forward. The man appeared exactly as he had the day he died; on the day Robin killed him. Henry Martin Vickers, a middle aged man of no particular fame or fortune, who passed through the wrong town at the wrong time, wore the same lapelled suit and suede shoes Robin remembered from the day of his death. There was also the open, questioning eyes and taut rope around his neck. The one unsettling difference between Henry Martin Vickers the man and the apparition was the latter’s eyes, which were both disturbingly removed. In their place, from deep within vacant unburned sockets, burst forth tiny orange flames.
Robin was horrified, but maintained presence of mind enough to reach into his saddlebags and pull out his gun. Robin was even more alarmed when he finally touched the gun again, frightened by how the cold made his warm skin tingle.
“I killed you once, Mr. Vickers, and I’ll do it again if I damn have to,” Robin said to the apparition, whose only movement was in the unrelenting flames, licking the holes that once held his eyes.
“Damn you!” he heard from the vicinity of the apparition, though its mouth never opened.
Robin liked the icy feel of the gun in his hand, but he loved it when he put his finger on the trigger and felt the ease at which it could be pulled. His arm intuitively raised the weapon, his muscles remembered that fateful day, and his eyes, calculating naturally, lined up a shot. His mind became perfectly free; his body, effortlessly taut. Robin was fluent in the movement of this circumstance, its language broken into his body and stained on his soul after his first encounter. Arrived at home in the past, its natural environment, the trigger pulled itself.
With his mind free of thought Robin did not consider he was shooting at a ghost or, more likely, an aberration of his imagination. His mind was belabored by a growing madness with each toxic breath in the canyon. Sister had not startled at the apparition, meaning it must be unseen by her. Thus, the chamber was empty; the ghost never there. This thought occurred to Robin, unfortunately, only after he had pulled the trigger and he was flying backward through the air. The noise and bang of the shot spooked Sister, a creature entirely unaccustomed to gunfire, and she threw Robin to run from the chamber and out of sight. Robin hit his head hard on the rock wall as he fell, going unconscious as he tumbled to the ground.
“He’s just a boy…” Robin thought he heard from the apparition as the echoes of the gunshot died away in the empty chamber. That’s just what the golden haired beauty had said on the trail, he remembered; the voice even sounded like Carolina’s.
“Hanged!” his father shouted in the next room, one evening a few days after Alfonso’s death. Robin was seated at the piano forte in the parlor and practicing the high arpeggios of Liszt’s ‘Liebestraum.’ He stopped playing when the word struck his ear over the trills of the piano and banged upon his eardrums until it was the only thing he heard.
The word had been ringing within him since the day of Alfonso’s death. He felt as if it was the deepest of notes, and he a tortured bell, cursed only to hum at its depth. Robin had been quiet and sullen in the days afterward, rarely leaving his room and moping around the house when he did. His family left him to his silence, for they were unable to notice his internal shaking, or hear the convulsive reverberations within his being. Robin suffered nightmares and lost his appetite, and wished for his insides to be mute. His very low mood lasted until the morning of that very day, when he awoke after a night of peaceful sleep to find the twang of grief was much abated. He cleared his plate during both meals, and on both occasions his parents exchanged a glance, as if they knew his changing disposition was but one of the many mysteries of adolescence. That night, he even allowed himself to sit at the piano and play, for his being had finally lost the refrain of grief and was willing to at last vibrate with a new tune. That was until his father spoke aloud the word, and the memory of the event struck him more fiercely than had the actual event. The word shook his being at an unbearable treble; unbearable right up until the moment he felt the bell within him crack, flooding him with a resounding muteness.
From this vacuum, Robin heard once again his father pacing over the worn wooden floor in the next room, in steps as regular as a heartbeat. Robin listened.
“Can you believe it? Hanged,” his father repeated. “That’s what they’ve decided. He’s to be hanged here on the morrow.”
“Hanged? For not even killing the man?” his oldest brother Junior queried. “That seems a gross abuse of the law, father.”
“That’s what I said in my letter to the state’s attorney! It went unheeded, however. It was made very clear to me at the club today. The county is sending a message to any more drifters or lowlifes passin’ through and thinking about takin’ advantage of the people,” his father grunted. “This Henry Martin Vickers did shoot a man—who, even though he’ll live, it could’ve just as easily turned out that he hadn’t. So the judge and jury see it as murder, and in this case they want to see a hangin’ for it.”
“But the man lived,” said Junior. “Isn’t there some precedence? Isn’t the law open to interpretation in this case?”
“It is.” Robin heard his father groan as he sat. “But it’s been interpreted by the people of the county. My one letter didn’t stand a chance against a thousand petitions. No official wants to lose the next election to save the life of one lousy drifter. It seems to have become a matter of politics.”
Junior paced over the path previously treaded by his father’s footsteps. “That bloodthirsty pack of crooks. They make a mockery of the law. And they call this justice?”
“The people see it that way.” His father’s voice was tired.
Junior pleaded. “There’s nothing more you can do, father?”
“I’ve done all I can, Junior. The man is condemned. Unless by tomorrow the hangman develops a fear of rope, I’m afraid Vickers is a dead man. This truly is the Devil’s business.” His father sighed in defeat, a sound as loud as the crash of a gavel.
Robin quietly closed the piano forte and retired to his room. He went to his dresser and opened the lowest drawer where his winter clothes were stored, pulling from the bottom Alfonso’s revolver. He had spent many nights since Alfonso’s death examining it by moonlight. He opened the revolver and looked inside the cylinder. The bullets were strange, unlike any he knew existed. He pulled one from its chamber and held it up to his face between his finger and thumb. It was twice as long as a regular bullet, with a copper case covering its length. The tip, half an inch, came to a point, and was almost certainly made of pure gold. He returned the bullet and put the gun under his pillow. He laid down in bed and thought of the rubies sparkling beneath his head. He imagined the letter he needed to write. He grabbed paper and pencil and began his confession.
“’Dear Pa. I know you said there was nothing we could do, but there’s always something. Well, I did it. I know you don’t agree with what I did, but I needed to do it. Alfonso was good, and unworthy of his end, and I was responsible. I couldn’t see it happen again. This time, I did what needed to be done. I know you put faith in the law and the people, but I can see that makes you tired and aged. Maybe nobody will understand me and what I’ve done, but I wanted to tell you I thought I was doing the right thing. And I know what you say, and the reverend says, and what the books and the law says, but sometimes doing the right thing means killing a man.’”
Robin signed and folded the letter, stuffing it under his pillow beside the gun.
He lay back in his bed and closed his eyes. He saw the deep blackness of the mask. A hangman appeared, nameless and unfeeling, running beyond the periphery of his vision. Robin was there to stop him. He was as responsible for Vickers’s life as he was for Alfonso’s death.
“I won’t let it happen again,” he said, praying for the dead.
Robin wiped away tears and thought of the gallows at the center of town, out in the open. Hangings always drew a crowd. If Robin was going to escape, he needed to shoot from a place where he was hidden. He only needed the letter he wrote if he was caught. He calculated his chance of success increased if he could shoot over the crowd, and had a direct line of sight. He had only one shot before the crowd took notice. He went to the door and listened to check if his parents were awake, but the house was silent. He sneaked out of the house that night to find the best position to place himself the next morning, and when he was satisfied he returned home and made sure the revolver was in impeccable condition.
In the morning he dressed, taking the revolver from under the pillow and leaving the letter. He left for the hanging early with his two brothers. The loft of a barn serving as a warehouse to a general store had a square window, one with a pulley attached over it used to hoist up goods, which provided Robin an opening above the center of town. Arriving at the hanging, Robin saw the crowd faced away from the warehouse, while the gallows directly faced it. When they reached the crowd, Robin slipped away from his brothers and skirted along its edge until he got to the warehouse entrance.
He waited outside the door as the crowd grew impatient. They jeered and cawed, like a murder of hungry crows. Robin waited until several people had seen him watching in front of the door before he stole into the warehouse, leaving the big front door slid partially open, and climbed the wooden ladder to the loft. The gun was hidden under his shirt and tucked into his belt. He pulled it out and knew it was ready. He looked through the window.
Robin saw the mayor, the local sheriff and the deputies standing at the gallows. The crowd went silent and the powers that be announced the condemned man. Those assembled on the far side parted as Henry Martin Vickers stepped forward, the hangman by his side. There was another round of whistling and curses. The hangman pushed Vickers to his fate and Robin shuddered. The hangman was dressed as an executioner, a black cloth over his head to hide his identity. Robin knew without a doubt it was the man in the mask.
Robin watched the hangman lead Vickers up the steps of the square gallows. A noose hung from the top beam and the hangman put the rope around Vickers’s neck. The mayor read the charges and the result of the sentencing, and then called for silence and allowed Henry Martin Vickers his last words. At first, though the rope around his neck was yet loose, Vickers had great trouble speaking. Everyone strained their ears to hear him. From the square window in the loft, Robin said a prayer for Vickers and aimed the revolver.
“I know the prosecution said the man was unarmed but he pulled a knife on me, I swear it,” Vickers said, “and I didn’t have to think twice to pull my gun and shoot him. You pull a knife where I’m from, you expect something like that can happen. I know most of you here’d do the same thing I did, that I believe. I know that man didn’t die neither, so my hands are washed of any sin. I got me a clean conscious when I meet Jesus and he asks me ‘bout my life and regrets.” Vickers voice became stronger and he straightened his back to stand tall, the rope resting limp on his shoulders. “But you people are taking a life, my life, and that’s something that’ll stain the souls of each one of you. In a couple minutes time I’ll be in heaven, but when each of you are at your end and ready to see God, you’ll meet him and he’ll know this sin of yours and he’ll damn you to Hell, and I’ll be happy that we won’t share company in the presence of His eternal glory. God will damn you! This is the path of damnation! Damn you!”
The mayor nodded and the hangman tightened the noose. Robin sighted the black hood of the hangman. Robin thought of Alfonso suspended high above the earth from the loneliest branch of the forlorn tree behind the church. He desired only to spare himself such a sight a second time. The hangman reached back to push Vickers off the gallows and Robin pulled the trigger. Splinters flew off wooden planks on the gallows as the shot missed wide. Some in the crowd looked around in confusion but most stared at Vickers as he swung free, dangling by his neck, kicking his impotent feet in the free air. The hangman watched beneath his hood, unmoved and untouched. The gunshot had gone overlooked by those on the gallows. Some in the crowd, however, began to look toward the warehouse.
Robin ducked away from the window, tucking the gun back under his clothes. He felt as if he shot himself in the stomach. His failure to save Vickers sickened him.
“Damn it!” he said, as hurried down the ladder.
He stopped just inside the warehouse with his back to the open door and waited for the first group of people to come through the door. Of the first dozen or so who ran into the warehouse, two were his brothers. Robin turned at them and shouted, “I think I saw someone run out the back door!” The crowd ran through, and Robin watched, exhaling his nerves, as he was ignored. But Junior caught a pained look in Robin’s eye and paused. Robin tried to seem the gloomy boy his family knew, but Junior, older by ten years, saw something different.
“You sure about what you saw?” Junior said as he looked Robin up and down.
“Yeah, I ran in here and saw just some legs as the shooter got out the back door.” More of the crowd came up and ran through the warehouse, on the trail of Robin’s fabricated assassin.
Nobody paid them any attention. Junior looked down his nose at Robin, familiar with his little brother’s evasiveness but unfamiliar with the way he was standing; weakened but defiant, on the verge of tears but with his chin raised against it. His blue eyes were full of guilt and regret, but it did not seem to shame him.
“Where were you during the hanging? You disappeared,” he said.
“I was there the whole time,” Robin replied. “Why, where were you?”
Robin spit his words as if they were an accusation. Junior knew something was amiss and wanted to raise his voice, wanted to keep digging, but the look in Robin’s eyes unsettled him.
Junior, the older brother, the example, grew defensive. “There was nothing we could do,” he sputtered.
Robin stared him down hard until Junior was shamed; shamed to have put his belief and his work behind a law that failed men. Junior looked away, unable to sustain the gaze, defeated by the realization he had treasured the virtues of civilization merely because they conformed to his flaws of character. Robin felt his brother’s failure was much worse than his own.
“The man you’re looking for escaped that away,” shouted Robin, pointing out the back doors for the stream of pursuers. His brother, noticeably shaken, turned and followed the crowd as Robin, validated, pushed against it and went out the front.
A blast of sunlight and heat surprised him as he stepped outside, but he quickly realized only his hand and belly burned. The palm of his shooting hand felt like it was on fire, and the gun pressed against his torso was radiating a heat so fierce he had to grab it through his shirt with his left hand and keep it away from his skin. He looked at his burning right hand and saw the faint outline of the gun’s inlaid red cross scalded into the pink skin of his palm, threatening to blister. He was surprised to learn the gun exploded with extreme heat when fired, and disappointed because, before he suffered such a serious reaction, he was sure this weapon was meant for him.
Cautiously keeping the scorching gun away from his bare skin he started toward home, past the loitering remainder of the crowd. He made himself look toward the gallows, at the idle body of Henry Martin Vickers as it hung wilted, dead eyes open. It seemed to blindly stare at the warehouse window, begging its former occupant to save him. The burning sensation from his hand and torso was strong, but not strong enough to overpower the nausea that hit Robin, and he was sick. He vomited onto the ground, filling deep boot prints in the mud left by the abandoned crowd.
“It’s much more gruesome than how I pictured it,” said an older woman to her husband as they strolled past.
“And sad. But I always like to see them dance, when they send them west,” replied the husband.
Robin took a deep breath and wiped his mouth. A group of stragglers laughed nervously before turning away for home. Robin was about to do the same when out of the corner of his eye he saw the blackness again. This time it was hanging limp, halfway on and halfway off the edge of the gallows. It took him a moment to recognize it without its wearer; it was the hooded mask of the hangman. Franticly, Robin looked around at the thinning crowd, searching its bodies and faces for the nameless man he had come so close to killing. When no man stood out, Robin thought everyman must be the hangman and his breath cut short. He returned his eyes to Vickers, the only man he was sure was not the executioner, and ran toward him. At the gallows he leapt into the air with his hand outstretched, coming down with the lifeless mask of the hangman.
He looked at the dead man one last time. “I’m sorry Mr. Vickers. It’s my fault you’re dead. Nobody else tried to save you, or gave a damn, but I did. I just wasn’t ready to help you is all. I promise, next time this happens, I’ll be ready.” Tears seared his eyes. “Someday, I’ll be ready.”
He ran home. When he found his note underneath his pillow he took it downstairs and threw it in the stove.
Robin returned to the gun the next day. His hand and belly still were tender, but the gun had cooled down and Robin needed to inspect it. The rubies on the grip glowed intensely, but from a natural refraction of light rather than from the red-hot heat of the day before. He opened the cylinder and emptied the chamber of the spent bullet, holding the casing up to his face. Its copper was cold, its top beheaded and lodged, plumed and golden, in the wooden floor of the gallows. An ounce of gold, traded for the hangman’s mask. He put the used shell back in the chamber and closed the revolver, spinning it back in place to be ready, if he was to ever use it again. The grip was burning again. He dropped the gun but it burned him still and he moaned and looked at his hand and saw the fiery rubies had jumped from the grip and implanted themselves into his palm, digging their way under his skin. He screamed in horror as the rubies drowned in his blood and his hand burst into a golden flame.
He woke up in darkness and kept screaming. His high-pitched cry echoed back to him in sharp waves making his head spin until he saw he was back in the canyon, still stuck amongst the darkness. His hand did feel like it was burning though, and he realized he had been gripping the gun the entirety of his time unconscious. He let it go and blew on his hand, knowing the second burn was going to be much worse than the first. The pain felt like it entrenched itself within his skin, and Robin feared this time the gun had branded him. He barely saw his palm in the dim light of the moss, but he knew it was a mess of raised red welts and white blisters. Using his sleeve, he put the gun into the deep front pocket of his thick crimson duster and enjoyed its fading heat through layers of clothing. The faint chamber was empty now, and the phantasm of Henry Martin Vickers with his flaming eyes was hopefully gone for good.
But the pain lingered. His shooting hand throbbed and his head ached from where he landed on it. Breathing the dense air kept him dizzy and blurred his vision. His eyes were increasingly unable to focus. Being trapped in the dark only intensified his sensations. He thought about resting until dawn, but Robin knew with certainty that to stop was to die. He stood up and vowed to stumble on through the darkness, feeling his way and ignoring the pain as it spread over his body, hopefully to find Sister, the fabled Keystone and, ultimately, the canyon’s end…