The Sortie–Excerpt from ‘The Hangman’s Valley’
by Eland Robert Mann
Chapter 12–The Sortie
“The way you have to look at it,” Robin’s new companion William said, “is that the Red Riders are true cowboys—on the long drive—and we’re the cattle.” William arched his brow over his bulging round eyes and gave Robin a knowing nod.
It was only yesterday when they had first been chained together, a linked pair on a long manacled centipede of captives that marched west along the road to Cibola. After they had dragged Robin on the ground for a mile, tearing his skin and turning his young body blue, after he had suffocated on several occasions when his arms failed him, the fifty or so Red Riders ran into the main column transporting over a thousand slaves west. Robin was stunned at the sight of so many humans in bondage, whipped and shouted at, moving along by gunpoint by another hundred Red Riders.
Cowboys, Robin thought; that’s exactly what they were, driving chattel day and night to an unknown destination. A small wagon train brought up there rear, containing supplies such as ground corn kernels that were mashed into a paste and served to the slaves with a bowl of water. Only because there was no grass for them to graze on, Robin figured. Robin had spent only one day on the line, as the other slaves called it, but already he was sick of the marching, sick of the pain from his shredded back, sick of the corn paste and, most of all, sick of the chains.
The chains recalled to him the story of an ex-slave he once knew.
After the strangeness with Alfonso and Henry Martin Vickers, none in town seemed surprised when, at the beginning of Robin’s last summer at home, a black man spent a few weeks in town on business. Every Sunday Robin and the rest of the townsfolk saw the negro up close for a few hours when he attended church, as there was no other church in town for the colored man to go. Robin’s parents had mentioned how the man was a former slave, freed by the War, and how nice it was that slavery was a thing of the past in America. But few respectable people in town ever talked to the man himself, especially not Robin’s parents. One Sunday, while assisting the Reverend and the organist with the closing duties of the church, Robin watched the black man approach the surprised Reverend and beg for a moment of his time.
“A dilemma I has myself, suh,” said the black man to the Reverend, as Robin polished the metal and wood of the organ and pretended not to overhear.
“Yes, well, what is it then?” queried the Reverend, removing his white habit in a hurry, anxious to be away.
“Well suh, many here’s knows me by my Christian name, Absalom, which my mother blessed me with, it da one and same thing I received from her before she bein’ sold away. But as a chile’, my second name a come from my ol’ dead mar’suh, his family name bein’ Compson. So a half my name be beautiful to me, while da other half be staining me with memories a’ ugliness. I ain’ no slave no more, an’ I figured, now dat’s been so many years, I think I’s safe in sayin’ I ain’t gon’ be no slave again, so it round ‘bout time I finally rid myself a’ this damned name. I’m my own man now, ain’t I?”
“Please, son, no blasphemy in this house!” gasped the Reverend, shocked.
“Pardon, revered suh, just it’s this dilemma what got me right agitated. That’s why I’m here—for some true guidance, suh. If you can help.”
“And what exactly is it you want me to help you with?” asked the Reverend, his patience lost.
“I needs me a new name!” said the ex-slave. “It’s not right fo’ me a go ‘round callin’ myself Absalom Compson now is it? What I need is a certifiable second name that will keep me good with myself and God, and gimme all the advantages and stations that come in life ta those with blessed names!”
“You want me to help you with choosing a last name? That is something one does not usually choose for themselves.”
“I know dat, suh, but I figure my situation is unusual enough dat it’s upon me to decide my name.”
“You may be right,” said the Reverend, eager to draw the conversation to a close. “A name from the bible, as your mother chose, though controversial her choice might be, is just fine then. Have you decided on any names yet?”
“Yes!” said Absalom, “I right got me one dat sho is sweet. And blessed!”
“And what is it?” asked the Reverend, ready to shoot it down if it proved as vulgar as he feared.
“David! Not so bad, is dat, suh?”
“David? That’s traditionally a first name. You have also chosen the name of the father of Absalom.”
“I know, suh, that’ the reason I chose it. You see, suh, I don’t know my father, and only name ever given me was my slave mar’suh’s. But second name is from one’s own family, and father. With my situation, I’m my own father, so I have to get myself my own name; and as I is a father, of myself, my name of me as a father’d be David. Because I, suh, is Absalom, and dat name is blessed. Will you bless me now father, as David, too?”
Absalom implored with such heartfelt innocence that touched the Reverend, who was mostly a good man, and converted him to his cause; the Reverend truly desirous now to help Absalom solve his dilemma.
“Of course, my son, yes” said the Revered.
“I will bless you and bless your name.”
The Reverend blessed the man, calling him Absalom David for the first time, and said from henceforth that is how all Christians shall refer to this man. Tears appeared on Absalom’s cheeks and he shouted and whooped and thanked the lord. At this noise, the Reverend returned once again to his frigid impatience, and wished Absalom a blessed life with this name and begged pardon, as he must be away, other duties were pressing. Absalom wiped his face and bent to kiss the Reverend’s hand, who pulled it away and hurriedly ran into an anteroom, looking back at Absalom as if he were mad.
A new man, standing upright, Absalom strode out the front door of the church with a smile on his face, his new name bringing confidence to his step. Finished polishing a fine sheen on the organ, Robin ran out the front door to catch the ex-slave.
“’Scuse me, sir,” young Robin said timidly.
Absalom turned around, still beaming. “Yes, chile’, what is it?”
“Is it true you were once a slave in the South?”
Absalom, in high spirits, seemed pleased any of the townsfolk, usually cold and glib, stood to talk to him.
“When I’s just a boy your age, I was chile’; but no more, no more!”
Robin dug for the courage to ask Absalom the question he had always been meaning to ask.
“I don’t know if it’s right for me to say, but I heard you have a scar from those days. If it’s no trouble, sir, may I see it?”
“A scar?” Absalom bellowed loudly. “My whole body is scarred, but now I’s free, so those bumpy lines be jus’ memories a’ bondage. The memories of ‘nother man’s life, no less. But you may look.”
Absalom took off his jacket and unbuttoned his collared shirt, handing both to Robin, before raising his arms and flexing his muscles as he turned in a circle. Robin was confused at first, to behold a man who looked to be made up of a thousand tiny muscles, some on his chest but most on his back. It took Robin a moment to realize the tiny muscles and discolored bumps were actually scars, wormy lines and wide divots that crisscrossed much of his exposed body. The scarring covered the skin, but underneath Robin saw layers of thick and dense muscle, the product of a life of hard labor. Absalom enjoyed the expression of awe he saw on Robin’s face.
“Those ain’t nothin’ he said,” as he turned to Robin and thrust forward his arms. Robin detected what looked like deep and wide scars around each of his wrists and forearm. Absalom bunched his hands into fists and flexed his right forearm. Halfway between his wrist and elbow, a massive crater appeared beneath the skin.
“That muscle be gone,” Absalom said. “Lost it when I broke dem chains.”
“Broke your chains?” Robin squeaked, timidly stretching out a hand to prod the hollow where the muscle used to be.
“The armies rolled through and mar’suh put all us niggers in da barn, and put chains on us so we can’t fight back. Armies don’t know niggers in da barn; because once they come they set it on fire. Some niggers survive that fire, but they covered in burns real bad. I’s only nigger to survive dat fire who broke his damn chains. I was blessed that night. These arm scars be much better than fire scars. I stretched those chains, and broke them, but they broke this right arm. That’s how come they took dat dead muscle off me. But I didn’t burn. I’s been beaten and slaved, but never burned.
“That night, we burned the mar’suh. I say we, but it was just me. I burned mars’ah that night. I broke those chains, and found him hiding in da cabin a’ his slave woman. I blocked the door, and burned them both in dat cabin, and dat night I went to da main house and slept in his bed. Morning time I wake, I see those man’cles still on my wrist. I didn’t notice all damn night. It was much later when somebody sawed them off—I think it prolly dat army doctor who stitched me up—but these scars on my wrist, they gon’ stay, next to all the others.”
“You’re that strong?” Robin asked, amazed.
“I was. Many things a young man can do, breakin’ chains is the least of them. But such was my lot in life,” said Absalom, wearing a pained smile over the years of scars.
Robin handed Absalom back his clothes. “Thank you for your time, Mr. David.”
Absalom blinked. Tears of joy appeared in his eyes and his face twisted into a big grin. “Bless you, chile’!” said Absalom. “Bless you! What a blessing. Mr. David, yes, him’s me. Bless you!”
Robin, embarrassed at the noise and the fervor of the blessing, turned and ran away without pausing to wave back, thinking only of black leather skin, a cratered forearm, and scars that shined like dark worms.
Robin looked at the manacles on his own hands. His wrists were bloody and raw. The manacles were locked to a chain that connected the entire coffle. There must have been thirty ragged, scrawny men chained together in his coffle. More coffles stretched ahead down the line and behind him. He figured there were at least forty. He wondered if the men around him were all children, as he was, of Manifest Destiny. Pioneers who had gone west and gotten lost, or been captured; fur-traders, gold-seekers, wilderness men who had wandered, captured by the slavers.
Of the men he had seen, Robin had yet to see Peter. Last time he saw Peter was just before a lasso was thrown around his neck and pulled Robin from his horse. He hoped Peter was ok. The corn paste was not nearly enough for Robin, let alone jolly Peter, and he feared for his only friend. And then there was Sister. She was a good horse, and better than most of the rides the Riders had. He hoped she was still alive. His worrying was interrupted when his stomach began to growl. Hunger marched to the forefront of his thoughts.
Robin turned to William, who had been talking to himself, and interrupted him in a whisper.
“William, when you think they’re going to break for lunch?”
“Lunch?” William laughed. “There’s no break for lunch! We stop at dusk, and then we can eat. Dawn to dusk, that’s the marching orders on the line—this, here, is a sortie.”
“What’s a sortie?”
“You are a newborn fool, aren’t you,” said William, shaking his head in apparent disgust. “A sortie’s a request of the Prince, to go out and look around and then go back and report.”
“So where you all coming from,” asked Robin.
“From the damned city of Aquila,” said William.
“And where you all going to?” asked Robin again.
William gave Robin an incredulous stare. “Don’t you get it? We’re going to end up right back in Aquila. The sortie’s a giant loop-de-loop! A circle through the buttes that goes nowhere and ends exactly where it began! A goddamn circle. Does that not boggle the mind? A perfect, beautiful circle!”
Robin, detecting wideness in William’s bulging bug eyes, looked away. It crossed his mind the man he was chained to was insane, or at least dangerous.
“And how many ‘sortie’s’ have you been on,” asked Robin interestedly.
“Four-” William hissed, “-teen. And they’re all the same. Many go out, some come back. The stronger ones, that is. The sorties always seem to weed out the weak. Says a lot about your old friend William that he’s managed fourteen.”
William cackled, loud enough to catch the attention of the Red Rider behind them down the line.
“You there! Shut your goddamn mouth. No talking on the line!”
“I wasn’t talking to you, ignoramus. I was laughing, and at the thought of your goddamn mother, no less,” yelled back William.
“You son of a—”
The Rider’s whip cracked out of the air toward William’s back. Right before it hit tender skin, William turned around and, despite his manacled hands, grabbed the snapping whip and gave it a tremendous pull. The Rider flew off his horse and over the chained line, smacking the ground in front of Robin.
“Kill him!” William snarled in a loud whisper as the line pulled them forward and into the Rider.
Robin was stunned. The fallen Rider, prone on the ground, recovered from his daze and sat up. Robin’s hands were still manacled, but the line had pulled him close enough to where he was in reach of the man’s skull. If no one saw or ratted him out, he could make the blow and get away clean. The fallen rider, however, winced as he got to his knees. Robin felt sorry for him. Extending his heavy, steel-laden hands the man recoiled in surprise, but Robin got a firm grip on the man and helped him to his feet. Robin felt it was the only right thing to do.
The rider looked at Robin sheepishly. “Thanks,” he said, stumbling forward with the line.
Robin nodded as crazed William leaped over him and brought the full weight of his steel manacles crashing down on the distracted Rider’s skull. Robin heard a wet crunch as the man buckled to his knees and died.
“Now you’ve done it,” exclaimed Robin, scared.
“Yeah, did what you couldn’t do. I’ll remember that for next time, pardner,” William said, spitting on the slumped rider and giving in to his chains as he was pulled back to the marching pace of the line.
“We’ve got to break out of these chains and make a run for it, take our chances,” said Robin.
“Hah!” William laughed. “I knew it about you, boy, you are cuckoo! Done lost your mind, you have. Let those damn riders come to William. Then we’ll find out how strong they really are.”
Robin kept his mouth shut. If William was insane, it was best he said nothing. He focused on his escape. The manacles were on tight, already breaking the skin where his bones bulged on his wrists. Robin hoped if he flexed enough, like Absalom David, he might find a weak enough point in the chains for them to break. He needed only one link in the manacles to break. He pulled apart his hands, feeling the strain in his muscles and the pain of his forearms. He tried to push past the pain but it was no good. The chains held strong. He knew his bones would break before he ever broke the chains. Fresh blood rolled down the lines of his palm and he cursed his undeveloped musculature as William looked over at him and laughed.
“Stop!” yelled a Red Rider at the top of his lungs from behind, and Robin listened as the same call was repeated several times all the way up the line. Robin stopped his feet as his heart quickened pace. The line never paused, Robin thought; this can’t be good. Two riders from up the line cantered past. Robin turned his head and watched them stop at the dead rider’s vacant horse. Robin noticed the first of the two was the skinny Rider who had rifled Peter’s horse and lassoed him by the neck. That was a good sign. Peter, if he had survived, was probably somewhere on this line then, Robin thought.
The skinny Rider and his companion performed their duties wordlessly. After searching around the horse, they worked their way up the line toward Robin and William, inspecting the ground, looking for the dead man’s body. When the companion saw it, he gave a silent signal. Looking back to the horse and then at the body, they judged the distance, which they duplicated riding back up the line, until they stopped their canter right next to William and surveyed the group of slaves around him and Robin. The skinny Rider spoke.
“All right, you animals, which one of you was it.”
Jumping at the opportunity, William piped up. “It was him! This one did it. I was right next to him when he killed the rider!” William pointed at Robin who realized too late he was being betrayed. Robin opened his mouth, looking around for encouragement from the other slaves, but they were silent.
The skinny one’s companion looked Robin up and down. “You?” he asked in surprise.
Robin looked back and forth from William to the Riders, too shocked for words.
“Yes it was him!” William shouted again.
“What should we do then, Captain?” asked the companion to the skinny one addressed as Captain.
The Captain pursed his lips and spit right on William’s face. “This don’t feel right. Let’s kill the rat and promote the killer,” he said.
William didn’t even bother to wipe the spit off before he started jumping around and giving them a different story. “It was me! I did it! I killed the man, this bastard didn’t even do anything. He did nothing!”
The Captain pulled out his revolver and took aim at William, still in chains, with nowhere to run. “I don’t like being lied to,” he said.
“But this is my fourteenth sortie!” William screamed. “I’ve survived them all! I’m stronger than any man on the line!”
The Captain smiled. “Well how ‘bout you show me if you’re strong enough for this?” he said and pulled the trigger. Robin ducked as William’s head exploded in a shower of blood and viscera. The other Rider hopped to the ground while the Captain holstered his pistol and handed him a ring of keys. He unlocked William’s manacles first, kicking the dead man aside in disgust before he freed Robin. When the manacles snapped open, he rubbed his tender white wrists, stupefied his bondage was so brief.
“We’re always looking for the better man,” the Captain said to Robin. “You ride with us, now. Get your duster and your horse. And the whip. You’ll be needing it.”
Robin walked down the line as the other slaves averted their gaze and heard no mutterings; nothing but the silence that comes with fear. Robin found the dead rider and yanked off the duster, putting one on for the second time in his life. He pried the whip out of the dead man’s hands and mounted his new horse. Atop the dead man’s saddle, Robin settled into the new ride, but he had a feeling this was a cruel joke. He thought for sure in a minute they would send him back to the line, or worse. The Captain rode to meet him and he shook with dread.
“These slaves here are the Prince’s cattle,” the Captain said, “and we’re like his cowboys. Hold the line, and it’ll be a smooth sortie.”
The Captain gave a grunt and kicked his horse back up the line. Robin stared after him, still shaking. The line seemed to stretch forever, a mass of human suffering going west, two by two, and Robin wearing red, with the whip in his freed hands…