Vultures–Excerpt from ‘The Hangman’s Valley’
by Eland Robert Mann
“This is a favorable sign,” said Peter, pointing to the sky.
“Up there?” Robin asked. “What are you pointing at?”
The two of them were lying down beside each other in their bedrolls, on top of a butte further west in the valley, staring up at the night sky after filling their bellies with cold food, having decided not to light a fire to avoid being seen from a distance and attracting unwanted attention.
“It’s the time of year, we are lucky. The sky can hold many favorable signs for us. Do you see it?”
“Directly overhead there, see that bright star? Down and left we have another, less bright, and then to middle but lower again we have a star, then right a star again, see? Then, back to middle, and look much lower, and there another star. This is very beautiful. What do you see?”
The night sky had no less than a million stars, and it seemed funny to Robin for Peter to pluck out five to read a sign. Robin followed Peter’s finger anyway, and he thought he recognized the cluster Peter described.
“I see it. But what’s the sign?” asked Robin.
“What does it look like to you?” Peter eagerly questioned.
“An odd cross of some kind, or maybe a diamond.”
“But you are forgetting the tail!” Peter stabbed his finger into the air insistently.
“A bird, then. A large bird.”
“Exactly!” Peter cried out. “Very nice, birdy. You have good eyes, and imagination of fortunate person. That is the constellation, Aquila, ‘the Eagle,’ and we follow that ornament of the heavens west to the earthly wonder at the center of Cibola, the City of Aquila; the Eagle City! It is much favorable sign, no?”
“I guess it’s an eagle,” said Robin, “but there are so many stars, they kind of muddy up when they’re together.”
Peter laughed. “It was the ancients of Greece who first called these stars the Eagle, not me birdy. And they not always seen direct above us, with much bright beauty. I have known many things, and this I tell you now: the Eagle, agent of Jupiter, will guide us and protect us from above and welcome us to his home in Cibola. We will be safe on this journey. Very nice, no?”
“It does sound nice,” Robin said, “but it still doesn’t really look like an eagle.”
“Close your eyes, birdy, and in your dreams perhaps you see this eagle in flight.”
Robin shut his eyes to the stars and slept.
He awoke in the middle of the night as a puff of wind passed over his face. He opened his eyes and saw a large winged shape pass in front of the moon, eclipsing it for a brief second, before swooping away and out of sight. Robin bolted upright.
“Peter!” Robin hissed, his eyes trained on the sky, but there was no response. Robin turned and saw Peter asleep, drooling into his bedroll, having missed the strange creature in the sky. Robin lay back down and kept his eyes peeled for a time, watching for the creature’s reappearance, but soon his eyelids grew heavy and he was asleep, dreaming of large birds that he was never sure were actually eagles.
Peter woke Robin before dawn, and after breakfasting on honeyed biscuits they descended the buttes, fed their horses, and returned to the road as the sun crested the eastern horizon. Robin looked west for the aqueduct but that part of the country was mostly dark, its faint blue light but the memory of yesterday’s sinking sun. They yawned but did not speak, riding the old road in quiet peace as sleep departed their minds and the beauty of the natural world surrounded their bodies. Desert buttes cast long shadows west, but outside the shadows the morning sun gave dusty rocks, dry shrubs and everything else a golden glow. Of fauna, however, the valley was still lifeless. Robin felt he roamed through a world painted and sculpted, where nothing moved or breathed, except for him, Peter and the horses.
Later in the morning, as he began to forget about the lack of animal presence and count himself blessed to have such natural beauty all to himself, another long shadow drifted across his face, blocking the sun from his being for an instant. Robin looked left, but strangely saw no butte between him and the eastern sun. The shadow flickered once again and Robin looked above him and beheld an enormous winged creature, possibly the same from the night before, or from his dreams, hovering and circling high overhead.
Peter rode up beside him, his gaze also aloft.
“Is it our guardian eagle?” Robin asked with apprehension.
“No. This, birdy, is a vulture.”
A deafening, high-pitched scream erupted from the lone vulture overhead and Robin and Peter covered their ears.
“Why is it circling us?” Robin asked, ringing out his ears with his finger as the vulture’s scream trailed off and silence returned. Robin did not particularly like this first sign of wildlife in the valley. Though the vulture unnerved him, he was still surprised when Peter pulled out his rifle and aimed it toward the sky.
“I don’t know, but I don’t like it,” Peter replied as he closed one eye and lined up the shot. His movement of the gun matched the circling of the vulture, with Peter leading the bird by just a second. Peter was about to pull the trigger of the rifle when the bird flew into the sun again and Peter cried out as the star temporarily blinded him.
Robin, following the bird too, also lost it in the sunlight. When their eyesight returned they looked back at the sky but saw, rather than a single hovering vulture, a sky filled with hundreds circling in the distance. Peter lowered his rifle and gestured to them.
“I think they not following us,” said Peter, “but is still no good sign. I remember escaped slave settlement here, I think soon ahead we will find many vultures, and much gruesome mess.”
As Peter predicted, the further they rode, the more vultures joined the congregation in the sky. With their eyes above them, it was awhile before they noticed the red crusted earth beside the road, dried blood gone rotten. Then they saw the bones and festering limbs, all detached and scattered, belonging not to one person but to hundreds. No whole bodies were in view; only various decaying appendages, distributed randomly on the ground, as if they had been tossed aimlessly aside, or dropped carelessly from a great height. Ahead of them near the road, Peter’s and Robin’s eyes were drawn to a sight at once both unbelievable and terrifying. A rumbling and shifting black cloud, hovering over a red butte ahead, seemed to move with a mind of its own. Upon closer examination, they were horrified to discover the black cloud was composed entirely of massive vultures, all with feathers of black and leathery red, balding heads. Robin wondered if these vultures were given these red faces by nature, or if they were earned by laboring through the bloody innards of corpses. The vultures had done their work that day, as Robin saw around him a scene of mass carnage; torsos gutted, flesh and tendon picked clean off skeletons; bubbling putrescence crawling with maggots and spoiling in the sun. Some dislodged and deformed parts looked to have at one time been human, but now seemed to resemble more the scrawny shrubs and red rocks of the terrain. Sick to their stomachs at the sight of the black cloud and the spoiled ground, Peter and Robin looked to the towering red butte for relief, but it was there they saw the day’s true horror.
In the bluff face of the butte which overlooked the road, Robin observed within a recessed crevice a panorama of dwellings, forming the escaped slave settlement mentioned by Peter. A hundred or so carved and adobe bricked pueblos were stacked on the upper reaches of a sheer cliff, directly below the top sheet caprock of the butte that served as a great roof or shield from the elements. Robin could tell, from its protection from above and from the sheerness of the cliffs below, the settlement, though in plain sight, was nearly impregnable. But somehow, someone had taken it; because hanging by rope off the cliffs and the dwellings were over one hundred human corpses, suspended amongst thousands of vultures, who squatted on bricks and tore at the hanged bodies, staring through every window and crack at Robin and Peter as they approached.
“Look at them! Holding court in the cliffs. Black mourners at a funeral for a whole city. Birdy, they call this a wake, but I never seen this many before, not in all my life.”
They rode around a horse carcass and half a dozen vultures took flight, leaving the horse for the worms, or so Robin thought. The dead horse’s stomach contracted unnaturally as Robin watched a bald red head poke a hole through its belly, look around to notice his comrades had taken flight, and then retract back inside where the lone vulture continued feasting on the viscera from within. The other half dozen returned to the butte, and congregated with their thousand bloody cousins, all respectively perched and content as they peacefully digested the butchered settlement. Displayed in the recesses of the upper cliffs, the mass of vultures seemed a grotesque horde of mutant sparrows.
“How…” was all Robin could utter. Peter shook his head as if he had seen one atrocity too many in his life.
“This,” Peter finally replied, with tears brimming in his eyes, “is act of Red Riders and the Prince. Robin, you may be surprised. But this is one much smaller massacre I seen here in valley. This is nothing. My only surprise is because so many vultures. Why so many? Is it time of year, and they are in travel? Migration? This I don’t have answer for; for massacre, answer is Prince.”
“Why would he do such a thing?” Robin asked, in outrage as much as in fear.
“Years ago, these cliffs were peopled by an ancient race of true red men, the native inhabitants of valley from time forgotten. Arriving in the valley, the Prince traded with these people, ate with them, and learned much of his surroundings from them. That red race is no more, because the Prince himself, where others now do his work, performed the same act on those people as you see here. It was here the Prince first made his mark on the geography which today he dominates. ‘The Hangman’s Rock,’ this place is called now, for once there was an old name for this rock, from the time the gods raised it on this earth, but all men who knew this name are long hanged and dead. Ever since, much escaped slaves seek this place in ignorance, not knowing they enter a trap the Prince first set long ago. When running from the Prince, it is best to go underground, no? Hard to hang a man who is already underground. The higher these escaped doves go, the more likely to get rope around their neck.”
“All these people were slaves?” Robin asked.
“Ropes are for slaves, that’s what the Riders say, but everyone in the valley belongs to the Prince. This is his place, you know? Things were different before; less people, more peaceful. But times change; now more people, and much more blood. You don’t look at Hangman’s Rock no more, ok birdy? We keep going. If you see any Riders, just—”
Before Peter finished a wailing moan was heard nearby, and they turned their heads to the sound of the human voice. Peter charged toward the base of the funereal butte as Robin followed, in the direction of the moan. At the point of the butte closest to the road, Robin saw a skinny man with a long dark beard and shabby grey clothes propped up on his elbows, his eyes closed in pain. His legs were stretched out before him, submerged in a pool of dried blood and mostly covered by a large horse blanket. The man had seen Peter and Robin ride up, and was in such great pain that he wailed for their attention without any thought of danger.
“Help!” the man cried out. “Please, ya’ll, have mercy on an injured brother.”
“Rest easy, sir,” Robin said. “We’re happy just to see a survivor here.”
“Jumped,” the injured man said between coughs, “jumped I did. They weren’t gonna put no rope around my neck, not again. I didn’t think twice, just jumped. Both my legs are broke, of course, but I’m still alive. Been fighting these damned vultures off all day though. What a boon you two are; the answer to my prayers. I’m the only one who made it here, it looks like. Thanks be to God.”
The man’s last words made Peter’s ears prick up and he gave Robin a sidelong glance.
“You are only survivor, yes?” Peter asked slowly.
The injured man chuckled in pain. “Lucky is all, I guess.”
“Too lucky,” said Peter. “You know, I think you’re right. We do have such mercy you prayed for.” And before the man thanked him, Peter pulled out his revolver and shot the injured man dead, stamping a bloody hole in the center of his forehead.
“Peter! What on earth!” Robin exclaimed before he shushed Sister, who was almost as spooked as him. Peter jumped down from his horse and went up to the dead man and ripped off the blanket. In the man’s hands were two cocked revolvers and a pair of booted legs that look muscled and unbloodied.
“There! See? Is a trap. Always traps with these bastards. The Prince never leaves any survivors. Never, not once. Some warriors may leave a survivor to spread the tale of defeat to others. Not the Prince. He and Riders spread their own story. Never is a survivor left after a battle. This Rider think we are idiot babies. Not Peter! Now we ride fast, because we are probably being watched by much mean vultures, ok?”
Peter puts words to a feeling Robin had been having for a time now, ever since coming into view of the Hangman’s Rock. They were being watched. Robin looked ahead and over his shoulder. From what direction, he was not sure. North was the underground town of Don Antonio de Alvarado, east was the fallen Keystone Pass, south was the butte and a mountain range beyond, and west ran the road and the land of the Seven Cities. Robin saw no movement in any direction, and nothing out of place except for the wake of vultures standing in repose on the cliff dwellings.
“Let’s go,” said Robin, turning Sister back west and kicking her forward.
“We spend too much time here,” said Peter as he jumped back up on his horse.
Riding past the butte, the only thing Robin desired was to put the horrors and Red Rider traps behind him. Peter was right, Robin thought, you can trust no one. Robin searched the sky for his guardian eagle, but he saw only black vultures, ever circling. Robin put Sister to a gallop; the faster they were away from this place, the better.
A shot rang out before he got too far away though, and echoed off the buttes and away into the valley. Robin looked to Peter, to spot the noise’s origin, but Peter was no longer riding beside him. Robin pulled up on Sister’s reins and turned around. The vultures were still, as eternal as gargoyles on a cathedral. Beneath them, Peter was tumbling to the ground, his horse collapsing from a bullet wound to its hind quarters. From around either side of the butte, rode two groups of three men, all dressed in dusters of red. Peter sprang onto his feet and pulled out his revolver. Robin was galloping toward him when Peter waved.
“Go!” Peter shouted. “Save yourself!” Another shot rang out and Robin saw the head of Peter’s horse erupt in a shower of blood as it was put out of its misery. One of the Red Riders lowered their rifle and said something to another before raising it again.
“Peter, watch out!” Robin cried. He charged Sister toward Peter, who had thrown himself behind his dead horse as another rifle shot rang out. The six men approached at a canter, apparently in no great hurry, while Robin reached Peter first.
“Hop on!” Robin screamed. “I won’t leave you behind! We can make it!”
Peter looked away from Robin as his eyes glazed over and Robin saw Peter contemplated defeat.
“We can’t,” said Peter, routed. The six men closed in, and Robin knew this was their last chance. As he reached down to grab Peter and pull him onto Sister’s back Peter stepped back and pointed west. Following his finger, Robin turned and beheld a sight that plagued him with a feeling of confusion at first, then of hopelessness. Near half a hundred mounted Red Riders thundered at them down the road, about to circle them in moments and trap them against the butte to prevent any escape. Robin and Peter stood paralyzed while the six from the butte rode up casually, laughing. The one who had shot the rifle had a lasso in his hand, and Robin watched helplessly as it was thrown around Peter’s neck. Peter gave a grunt as it cinched tight, and fell onto his back as the man yanked the lasso and his horse took off running, dragging Peter away through the dust. Peter’s hands went to the rope and he held on tight to keep his head from dislocating. Out of the corner of his eye, Robin saw another lasso appear in the hands of a laughing Red Rider.
The Riders spoke not a word, only laughed, as in the blink of an eye the lasso fell around Robin’s neck and he was jerked off Sister. He hit the ground with a hard thud that knocked the wind out of him. But before had time to recover he chocked as he felt his windpipe crumple, the rope unimaginably tight as his body began to be dragged. Robin, on the verge of passing out, kept his senses and managed to get his hands on the rope as Peter did. Holding the rope removed the tension from his neck, and he was able to painfully wheeze in a breath while the rocky ground beat him, pummeling his back and kidneys. Robin saw Sister lassoed too, and she trotted behind him, also confused and terrified, but she was smart enough to not fight back. It was good none of them fought back, Robin knew, because they would surely have been killed. The fifty or so Red Riders broke their circle and formed into a column of four horses abreast, with Peter and Robin dragged behind and bringing up the rear. The sound of two hundred hooves ricocheted off the bloody butte, and Robin watched as several of the vultures broke away from the cliff dwellings and decided instead to follow the band of Red Riders as they headed west…