Resting Place–Excerpt from ‘The Hangman’s Valley’
by Eland Robert Mann
Chapter 13–Resting Place
The more whipping Robin did, the less he noticed its repulsiveness, until by dusk his arm was tired and his mind was dumb to each new crack he sliced through the air, and every bloody line he traced on a slave’s back. If they stumbled, he whipped them. If they paused, he whipped them. If they talked, he whipped them. It was wearisome business. Robin whipped halfheartedly most of the time, but he knew the whippings still stung. The Captain watched him, watched them all, keeping his subordinates in check. And Robin, as an overseer, as a Red Rider, monitored the people he had only earlier been marching with. It was expected of him to whip, and so he performed his duty. He pushed the pain of others out of his mind, and by the end of the day, the only soreness he felt was in his arm. He was glad of that, for the pain he suffered as a slave on the line was much worse. He felt lucky to be wearing the red duster.
The duster kept the manacles off his wrists. The duster gave him hot corn paste and salt beef. The duster gave him a horse to ride during the day and a bedroll beside a fire at night. The duster also gave him a different warmth; the warmth that came with having a power and superiority over one’s fellow man. It asked of him only to apply the whip and obey without pause the commands of the Captain.
“It’s not so bad,” he whispered aloud that first night, as he cried himself to sleep. The duster gave him hope.
The whip was back in his hand the next morning. There was a hunchback in his coffle who was proving to be an especially trying charge. In addition to the aberration the young man had a limp, which slowed his pace often enough that Robin’s whip had turned his hunched back, a large target already, into a mesh of welts. That morning, however, he was bothered most by the slave a row ahead of the hunchback, an old man who frequently succumbed to fits of coughing.
When again the old man stopped his march and bent over to force the phlegm from his lungs, Robin raised his whip. Robin felt sorry for him, but he was holding up the line. The coughing man’s manacled partner was a much fitter man, so Robin judiciously applied the whip to the partner. The man barked in surprise to suffer the punishment of another. He gave Robin a menacing glare, but the point was made and the coughing fit stopped. The manacled partner frowned, fuming at Robin and the old man, but the coffle started again. Once more the line was a perfect column of silvery movement.
The marching was steady for the rest of the morning. By the afternoon the heat was strong and Robin spent much of his energy trying not to drift off to sleep. Robin kept himself awake by thinking of Peter and Sister, and how he might escape with them. He had looked as much as possible as a Rider, but he was not allowed to wander too far up or down the line during the day. At night in camp his opportunities were even more limited, as he had either watch duties or was being watched. He reasoned Sister was still with them somewhere, but he feared for Peter. Worst of all, the Prince’s revolver was still in Robin’s saddlebags, which had last been on Sister. Most likely, they were looted, and the revolver was taken by one of his fellow Red Riders. The only possession Robin still had on him were his clothes from Don Alvarado and Madame Olalla and the defective golden coin with the hole in the middle which he looted from Carolina’s buggy. But he was headed west, toward Cibola, and that fact gave him peace.
Much later in the afternoon, the Captain rode down the line toward Robin. The slaves referred to him as the ‘Coyote,’ for he was wild and lean, but both ‘Captain’ and ‘Coyote’ were names uttered with equal respect and fear. Around the Captain hung his red duster, open and loose, an ill-fitting piece that overcompensated for a lack of natural insulation. Every time the Captain neared Robin felt a hollow coldness springing from the man. Despite being so skinny, the Captain had a voracious appetite; on the previous night Robin, had passed in front of the Captain’s tent at the center of camp and watched as he devoured a feast of thick wine and red meat with the other officers of the Rider Corps. Another Rider whispered to Robin the Captain ate like that every night. That surprised Robin, who thought the man was skin and bones, and looked like he survived on just the corn paste they fed the slaves. Robin stopped his horse as the Captain approached, the slaves continuing to march with their eyes concentrated on the ground and ears pricked up for news.
“Hey there, boy,” said the Captain reining up. “You still feelin’ green?” The Coyote cleared his nose. “Or might you be startin’ to feel a little Red, now?”
“Red, sir. Very Red.”
“Good. You one of them fellers who we lasso comin’ out of the cliffs the other day, aintcha.” Robin knew it was not a question. “I like that, cause you know already what it’s like when my rope’s a-comin’ for your exposed parts. Keep that in mind, and we’ll make a Rider of you yet, boy.”
“Yes sir,” said Robin.
The Captain leaned in to Robin for a private word. “Now, I need me two necks from you, so send me up the chaff and that’ll be it for the day. We’re comin’ to our resting place up ahead.”
“Very good, sir.”
“What’s good? You lookin’ to rest? Getting’ tired?”
“No, sir,” barked Robin in monotone.
“You think it’s good you have to send me a couple necks, is that it then?”
“Yes sir,” Robin replied in the same voice.
“Well then, I guess you must think you’re the reddest Rider in the whole Corps. Well, you still look green to me. Green as a girl’s puke. We’ll see though, won’t we,” the Coyote chirped as he kicked his horse onward down the line to speak to the next Rider.
Robin shuddered as he felt the coldness pass. The Coyote wanted ‘the chaff.’ Two slaves, he thought, necks attached to people to be sent up the line to their death. The whip was one thing, but this was something else. He was being asked to decide which two in his ward were to be hanged. The decision was impossible. None on the line deserved it, he thought, except maybe one.
Robin’s eyes flashed to the hunchback with the limp. Here was a young man, barely older than Robin, defective since birth and an inconvenience to the progress of the line. Robin tried to convince himself it was a mercy to relieve the hunchback from the pain of marching and the hopelessness of enslavement. The hunchback was also dumb or mute, Robin figured, as the creature had never uttered a sound despite the frequent lashes of the whip. The hunchback was barely suitable for a regular life, let alone a slave life. Robin watched the creature limp ever forward. Robin looked away, embarrassed.
In front and to the right of the hunchback was the old man who suffered the coughing fits. Robin pitied the old man, wishing the Coyote had not given him the burden of a decision. The old man started coughing again, and Robin rode up.
“Old man, you gotta walk while you cough. I don’t want to have to whip you.”
The old man suppressed his cough and straightened up. “I’ll be fine, Rider,” he said hoarsely, “as long as you grant me a mercy.”
Robin knew the old man’s request. “You want me to spare your life, of course. I understand. Well, I’m considering it.”
“No,” wheezed the old man. “The mercy I desire is death. Send me to be hanged. I beg of you, do this for me.”
The old man looked at Robin in desperation. Robin pitied him. When the old man buckled over to cough again Robin was shot another menacing glance by the partner with the evil eye.
“You there,” Robin said to the partner, “help this old man.”
“Aye. Help. You help this old bag of bones, you do. But you’re whippin’ me for his bloody coughing! It don’t move us any faster none; and it ain’t fair, damn you.”
“Help him,” Robin stressed, talking over the old man’s persistent coughing. But the man with the evil eye ignored his partner and stared right at Robin’s raised whip.
“Or what?” mocked the partner, who snickered right before he lunged across the old man’s chains and snatched at Robin’s foot. He attempted to drag Robin off his horse, but the attempt was gravely miscalculated.
When the coughing began, the hunchback directly behind him had slowed his pace to relieve his limp, thereby taking away the slack in the chained line the evil eyed partner was counting on. His outstretched, chained hand fell just short of Robin’s foot and he crashed to the ground. In his failure, he marked himself for death. Robin stared from the old man to the partner in the dirt and knew he had his two necks. Looking at the hunchback, whose slowed pace had saved his own skin, Robin wondered if he saw the glint of an accomplice’s recognition behind those dumb eyes.
The partner who had attacked Robin knew what was coming. Before Robin thought to use his whip the man stood and returned to the pace of the line, marching like a man broken and resigned to his fate. When a pair of Red Riders came for Robin’s chaff, Robin pointed out the old man and his partner. The old man coughed, but the partner said not a word as the Riders unlocked their manacles from the slave chain and took them both away. The man was unable to look at Robin, even in disgust; his menacing gaze extinct, or evolved into a new look of animal fear. Robin felt sorry for them both, but there was nothing he could do. The only way they could be saved now was after their hanging.
As the chaff was marched off, Robin rode beside his ward as it wound its way toward the setting sun and its resting place for the night. The hunchback was limping much less, seemingly enjoying the bit of slack he had gained since the man to his front had been removed. Again Robin saw the flicker of a collegial conspirator’s gaze in the hunchback’s eyes, and this time Robin was too intrigued to let it go.
“Can you speak, hunchback?” Robin asked, addressing the man as such.
The hunchback limped awkwardly, but his retort to Robin was extremely limber.
“I can speak, Rider, and better than I can walk. However, both of these abilities always seem to get me in a good deal of trouble on the line.”
Robin was surprised at the creature’s eloquence, to find the hunchback more educated than even he was.
“Well, I think that limp and slow pace of yours saved my life,” Robin replied.
“Did it?” the hunchback asked, “I hadn’t noticed.”
“I think you noticed,” said Robin, “’cause it also happened to save yours too.”
“I find that hard to believe,” went on the hunchback, “because my deficiencies are what got me here in the first place.”
“What’s your name, hunchback,” asked Robin.
The young hunchback faced Robin and contorted his mouth into a big grin. For a moment, Robin saw just a blazing white row of teeth, blurring the hunched back from view.
“Vermouth,” said the hunchback. “That’s what they call me, because sometimes I’m dry and sometimes I’m sweet but I’ll always give you a headache if you imbibe more than a drop of my company.”
“Vermouth?” asked Robin. “Well, I’m Robin, ‘cause that’s what everybody’s always called me for as long as I can remember.
“Nice to make your acquaintance, Robin,” said Vermouth, and he raised his manacled hands to mime a handshake.
“You too,” said Robin. “Shoot. Now that we are introduced and I know your name is Vermouth, I feel mighty bad about those times I was whipping you earlier.”
“Was that you whipping me? I figured there was a fly buzzing on my back and you were being most helpful in keeping it off. I do hate the buzzing of flies,” replied Vermouth.
“I beg your pardon,” said Robin, “but there was no such fly. You can’t imagine how sorry I feel now, but I just saw your limp was slowing down the line, and your back was such a nice big target that my whip seemed to have a mind of its own.”
“It is regrettable when inanimate things, those without thought, take over our minds and remove us from the responsibility of our actions, don’t you agree?”
“Yes, I agree,” said Robin. “Being a Red Rider is a damned business for sure, but I’d take it any day over being back in your position, because it does have its many advantages. But, I see that the column is about to stop, and before we separate there is one thing I’d like to ask you, as there is one particular advantage that you do have in your situation.”
“I’m most curious. What is it?” asked Vermouth.
Robin proceeded to tell Vermouth about Peter, asking him to learn whatever possible about Peter’s condition. If Vermouth could be counted on to do such a thing then he could count on Robin in return
“You’ll have my back, is what you’re saying,” said Vermouth.
“Exactly,” said Robin.
“I should warn you,” replied Vermouth, “that’s a very unwanted thing to have.” He gave a tired smile. “Well, Rider, I’ll do what you ask.
“Until tomorrow, then” said Robin, before dismounting to assist the rest of the Red Riders in staking down the wards before dusk.
The resting place for the night was outside of an abandoned village composed of a tight bunches of stacked structures made from whitewashed adobe brick. The earthen bricks were mortared together by baked clay and dung, originally packed into framed walls and flat roofs of wood. The beams that lined the ceiling protruded from the boxed, white structures in a row along the roofline, where once draped pots and dried foods but now displayed noosed ropes. Robin had not noticed it in the weakening light, but when torches were brought out he saw, blending in against the background of whitewashed walls, a foreground of whitewashed bones. The ground around the village was littered with them, human bones, most bare and bleached by the valley sun.
About fifty slaves were brought from the ranks of over a thousand to stand before the whitewashed adobe buildings. Robin saw the old coughing man and his evil eyed partner, and watched as a pair of Riders lead them and the other condemned slaves up wooden ladders to the connected roof s of several stacked, two story adobes. The Captain sat on his horse between the adobes and the line of watching slaves. This was to be a public hanging.
Pushed to the edge of the adobe roofs, the fifty slaves waited, as Riders walked by to put a noose around each neck. The drop from the roof was short, but so was the rope. During the preparation, Robin heard only silence, but he expected a wave of speeches and a reading of the sentencing as he had heard at hangings back home. One condemned man on the roofs did speak up, and Robin was surprised to recognize the sick old man. As soon as the old man began to speak, however, his coughing fit started again and the Captain closed his eyes, visibly losing his patience.
“Jump!” the Coyote howled, and the majority of the condemned slaves did as commanded, leaping to their death. The old man stopped his coughing for a brief moment to finally cry out a prayer before he leapt, achieving the last mercy he so desired.
The few slaves who remained standing out of fear, the evil-eyed partner amongst them, were kicked into the air in their last moment of terror. In that moment, Robin tasted regret, or guilt, as bile worked its way up his throat. He looked above the slaves toward the blank, darkened sky. The decision had not been easy but it was his, and he had done nothing to stop it. He knew he was as complicit as everyone else. The Captain nodded, staring directly at the slaves dangling from the beam-ends of the adobe, where once hung potted plants, as the skin of the dead faded to the color of raw clay above an earth whitewashed in bone.
Robin had never seen fifty souls flee their bodies in a single instant. Fifty Henry Martin Vickers’s, he thought, and Robin no longer innocent but a participant in death. Robin recalled the words of Madame Olalla, who desired him to let his guilt heal. But the fresh guilt within him cut through the recent scabs and stained him once again. Being a Red Rider was truly a damned business. He no longer knew whether it was better to hold the whip or receive the lashes. Neither, Robin thought.
Some necks had been unbroken by the fall, and the assembled watched as those poor souls squirmed and kicked their feet for a brief minute before they were suffocated. The Red Riders were told to leave their wards staked in front of the scene, and ride to the other side of the village to make camp. As Robin left with the others he saw the slaves watching after them, meek and pitiful, wards left chained together and staked into the ground, desperate and hungry after another full day on the line. But the hanging day is a fasting day for the slaves, Robin was told, and they received no corn paste that night. In return, Robin learned, it was a feast day for the Red Riders.
That night, from the tent of the Captain, big trays of hot beef emerged, distributed amongst the hundred Red Riders in the Corps. The beef was juicy and rich, but Robin ate not a single bite. He managed to stuff a few sweet muffins into his pockets before he stumbled away from the festivities. His body was too wracked with guilt to eat or celebrate.
“Someday,” he said, shaking. “I will not fail.”
Crawling into his bedroll beside the fire, he longed for the escape of sleep. A peaceful rest, he told himself, would be a welcome mercy. He was happy the old man got what he wanted. He thought of the freedom death offered, and he did not cry himself to sleep.
At dawn, he was back along the line yawning and holding on to the sleepiness for just one last blissful moment. He rode up to his slave ward and found them cold and cramped, bleary eyed and hungry, having spent the entire night exposed to the elements and with no food or drink. A part of Robin was glad he yet wore the duster. Robin saw Vermouth stretching his arms and awkwardly rubbing his sore feet with his manacled hand, and he felt an intense pity for the poor young hunchback. He tucked the whip into his duster.
“Vermouth, catch!” Robin shouted as he tossed him a sweet muffin. Though his motions were unappealing to the eye, Vermouth managed to catch the muffin before it hit the ground and gulp it down before any other slave even smelled it.
“I’m sorry they didn’t unchain you last night. I’m still green, it being my first sortie.”
“Well, the night was not a complete waste,” said Vermouth as he grinned over a grimace.
“How so?” Robin asked.
“I have knowledge of the friend you were looking for. The line is a gossiper’s paradise, an open aqueduct of information. You wouldn’t happen to have another one of those delicious corn muffins, would you?”
Robin tossed another corn muffin to Vermouth, who gobbled it down, leaving not a crumb.
“If there was only some coffee with which to wash this down?”
“Sorry, Vermouth; no coffee to be had.”
“Very well. Your friend, Peter the Pilgrim, is known to these parts as somewhat of an accomplished outlaw. He is quite the prize for the Coyote.”
“So he is alive!”
“Alive and well, and treated with care as the personal charge of your Captain before he presents him to the Prince for great esteem and reward,” Vermouth said with a hint of tender sympathy. “You’d do well to forget him…”