The Duel–Excerpt from ‘The Hangman’s Valley’
by Eland Robert Mann
Chapter 14–The Duel
As the days marched on, Robin began to ruminate on the seeds of an idea at once both incredible and mad, to the point where he was unable to shake it from his mind no matter how hard he tried. It was a crazy plan, impossible even, he told himself, but there must be a good reason for him to be thinking about it so often. He was a Red Rider, in a position of some advantage over the slaves. He thought of the possibility of freeing them, here and now. He questioned his options and his courage. There was a right thing to do, but neither Don Alvarado nor anyone was there to guide him through the right course of action; he had to decide for himself.
Robin was unsure of whether he had a great idea in his head or if he was being impractical and impatient. He spent most of his moments awake second-guessing his idea, rejecting details and making no progress on an actual plan. Besides himself, nothing stood in his way except one hundred Riders and the Coyote. But, if Vermouth was on Robin’s side, and if Peter could be found, then together they might be strong enough to begin convincing the others to overthrow the Riders and return to Don Alvarado. That meant abandoning his meeting with the Prince, but, feeling the guilt of the two he had personally condemned, he thought a thousand freed slaves might be worth it.
It had been several slow days of marching slaves and dusty winds since he had seen Sister or Peter. If Robin was to act it was now or never, before the line entered Cibola and joined with the rest of the Prince’s army. The red land of shrubby dirt and sparse buttes rarely afforded Robin any geographic advantage. Day after day, it weighed down his mind till it was heavy with knowledge there was likely no escape. His whipping arm was strong but tired from all the pain it had caused his mind. The sun, directly above, napped at noon and baked the whole world in its daydreams. Robin sighed, feeling strength from the sun but powerless as doubt circled his mind. He escaped the guilt, letting his eyes move away from the clanking line of misery that he was compelled to stare at every day from sunrise and sunset, raising them above the arid valley, dazzling but inescapable, to rest upon the moist blue heavens.
“Pardon me, Rider, sir,” said a crisp voice on the line, breaking Robin’s wandering spell.
Robin looked down and saw Vermouth staring back as he limped forward, led by the line chained to his manacled hands.
“What’s up, Vermouth?” Robin asked.
“I noticed we’ll be nearing the Old City, probably in a few short hours, and I was wondering if there was any word on the sacrifice for tomorrow.”
“Sacrifice?” Robin asked.
“Ah. So it seems you have no word. If it does come to your attention, do let me know.”
“We having another hanging, is that it?” Robin asked, disheartened.
Robin saw the other slaves look from one to another in quiet fear. The younger men in his ward, the ones who possessed the most to lose, that possession being time, quickened their march to the increased beat of their hearts.
“Most sorties pass through the Old City without much in the way of fanfare, but the Coyote, for some unknown reason, always makes a rather large sacrifice; one in a manner that is suitably bloody. While I’m a little less versed in the history of the valley, I am quite familiar with popular rumor. Though the historical answers as to why are somewhat vague, the city, today, is infamously well known as the City of Blood.”
As Vermouth spoke, Robin glimpsed sprouting through the horizon the first of the Seven Cities of Cibola, built around a pair of buttes that had the far-off appearance as of forming an arch, for their tops seemed to merge into one, and underneath which apparently continued the road west. At the base of the northern butte was an old mission, very similar to the one at the beginning of the Keystone Pass, with many buildings of newer, wooden make branching off from its walls. Robin was not surprised to observe again the absence of any life or activity, human or otherwise, amongst the city beneath the arching twin buttes.
“That’s it there?” Robin asked, pointing to what he saw, as if to make sure it was not a mirage.
“Yes, the one and only. A humble city of humbler times.”
“Why is it abandoned?” Robin queried. “I remember hearing of a town near us that everybody left when I was a kid because people were getting sick and they discovered that the drinking water had too many minerals in it, and it was dangerous to folks’ dispositions. The water being the one reason the town sprouted up in the first place, everybody left. A few families moved to our town, is how come I hear about it.”
Vermouth gave a sigh that seemed at first to belong to a storyteller’s levity; but, when it was followed by a moment of silence, Robin wondered if some painfully forgotten grievance had surfaced from within the hunchback.
“Like your story, the fate of the Old City was once decided by the whims of a cruel nature. But its history is very long and infinitely sad,” continued Vermouth. “If one can tell the entirety of the story in brief—with a word, no less—it would suffice only to say: the Prince; for it is his cruel nature that decides the fate of those who live and breathe and drink water in the valley. All the Seven Cities suffered such a fate. Only Aquila, the capitol, remains.”
Robin was about to ask for more details but the Coyote and several officers were seen hurriedly riding down the line.
“Greenbeak!” the Captain hollered, as the Riders had grown accustomed to calling Robin.
“Yessir?” Robin replied.
“Slow your slaves down, damnit! We’re all marchin’ too fast. We need to be at the Old City by sundown, so we can stop there for the night. Tomorrow we’ll have all day to double-time it to Aquila.”
“Yessir,” said Robin.
“Well?” barked the Captain.
Robin turned to the slaves on the line. “Alright, slow it down! Slow that marchin’ pace, you hear?”
Robin’s ward, having been near to bumping into the ward ahead, markedly reduced their march to unhurried half-steps, a great relief to those in bondage.
“Slaves think this is their high holy holiday!” the Coyote laughed. “Well, they can enjoy themselves now, but we got us a nice big sacrifice waiting for them in the City of Blood—I know I sure can’t wait.”
“Sir,” Robin said, “what exactly is the sacrifice?”
“The sacrifice? It’s a goddamn Conquistador’s massacre is what it is! But don’t worry, Greenbeak, I don’t see any here who look like they’d be up to it. I decide on the fighters myself.”
The Coyote grunted and rode off chuckling with his officers down the line. With the line slowed to a near stop, the marching was easy, and Robin spent the rest of the day in a more relaxed frame of mind. He was comforted the sacrifice seemed to be something that did not involve him, and he returned to his thoughts about how to reconnect with Peter, and his crazy idea.
Toward the end of the day, they arrived at the Old City. Robin saw the gigantic twin buttes up close and confirmed, at their summit, they did form an arch, where they were joined together by an enormous wooden bridge or platform, which itself supported a large building that seemed to Robin to have the look of an old fort. The fort, more wide than tall, spread from one butte-top to the other, and gave an imposing front to the line approaching on the road that passed underneath. The wooden bridge was buttressed by many bolts and beams, but looked rusted and decayed, in need of considerable care. Robin imagined the whole fort collapsing onto the road, the bridge giving in to the countless years of weighted strain. The Old City itself, if it could even be called a city, was mostly a decrepit stone mission surround by sad knots of rotted and empty wooden structures as if, in two different centuries, there had been two separate attempts to compose a permanent settlement, and both suffered the same miscarriage of enthusiasm. Perhaps one day a third attempt at civilization would be undertaken, but the twin buttes stood as mute testament in knowledge that any such human endeavor would be met with failure, as the crumbling of all ambition seemed to hibernate within its arched rock.
The Captain stopped the line directly beneath the fort and led them from the road to a nearby pen outside the mission walls that appeared to have once corralled livestock. After the afternoon’s leisurely walk, the slaves of Robin’s ward appeared in better spirits than days before. Vermouth especially seemed fit, his limp less noticeable and the sad expression he wore earlier in the day gone from his face. After filing into the corral, Red Riders with keys came around and unchained the slaves from the line, as per usual nightly protocol. The manacles stayed on, however, so the slaves were always attached in twos. Once the paired slaves were unhooked from the line, they were given minimum freedom to wander the pen, take care of nature or eat their meager portion of corn paste they were allotted; but when it got fully dark a curfew was in place and there was no movement of any kind until morning under penalty of death. As Greenbeak, Robin always pulled a watch for some part of the night; the rest of the time, he got much needed sleep.
With his nights filled thusly and his days on the line, Robin had but the brief moments of dusk to himself to scout for Peter. Though the Coyote always rode at the front of the line, he kept his tent and belongings in the back with the pack train. This is where Robin guessed Peter was kept too, but he had yet to get any sight of him. Tonight was his best chance to find Peter, since they had arrived slightly early and the Coyote was distracted by the business of the sacrifice. If he was unable to see any sign of Peter, he would begin to fear the worst.
After he led his ward to the pen, Robin turned his horse around and kicked off down the idled line. He needed to find Peter before the Coyote’s large tent was erected and Peter was thrown inside. At a light canter, the horse did not attract any attention, as most Riders were dismounting and chatting cheerfully, excited conversations about the upcoming sacrifice. Weaving the horse between the slowing wards on the line, Robin nearly cantered past a large hooded figure on a mule that was moving up from the rear of the line.
“Birdy!” the hooded figure hissed.
Robin reined up in surprise as the figure threw off his hood.
“Peter!” Robin exclaimed. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes! I heard news you were alive, but I feared the worst when I didn’t see any sign of you.”
“Damn it to hell! Yes, I’m alive,” said Peter on the mule, looking healthy but agitated. “It’s that I almost wish I wasn’t! Those bastards.”
“What happened?” Robin asked.
“The drink happened!” said Peter, fidgeting on a wobbly mule that barely handled his size. “The bloody drink! They drag me half to death before that Captain knew his prize. Soon as he finds out he puts the drink in me. It’s a damned business. I swore I’d never have it again, years ago, but they forced it into me and I’ve slept much and been recovering. They almost kill me! Then make me drink! These monster bastards. Now I’m Captain’s pet, till he bring me to the Prince.”
“That’s the rumor I heard,” Robin said, “but I’ve been looking high and low for you to make sure it was true. Peter, while there’s a second for us here, I need your help with a pla—”
“I’m lost, birdy, but cause is not lost,” Peter interrupted. “You see, I know one thing; Captain’s man, the Lieutenant Scout leading the line, you know? He’s man who has your gun.”
“I haven’t been up to the front of the line. How will I know him?”
“He’s very hard to miss. I think of these Riders, here, he’s only sick bastard with necklace of scalps.”
“Scalps?!” exclaimed Robin.
“Scalps—of people he’s beaten some way or another. On a string, he wears them, around his neck. I’m sorry, Robin, but this man, trusted friend of Captain, is the man with your gun. Don’t worry about me, or these slaves or anything else. If you have the gun, you can meet with the Prince, and from there we can accomplish much.”
“But Peter, my plan—we have to free these slaves. You saw it the other day; they murdered fifty of them, for no reason.”
“Birdy, I want to free slaves as much as you. But we must do it by fighting Prince, and if we win we won’t just free these slaves but everyone in entire valley, so there is much risk.”
“Does he enslave girls to?” Robin asked, suddenly thinking of captured Carolina.
“Yes, birdy. Especially girls. There is much horrible that he does.”
“I’m pained to hear such things, Peter, but I trust you. I’ve been sorely missing someone to help me with my decisions. So, if I’m to get the gun, how do I you think I should steal it from him?”
“Steal? Oh no, you can’t steal. Anyone find out and you are dead duckling. You must win this revolver from him!”
“I should fight him then?” Robin asked.
“If you fight him you are also dead, so no, I think not. You must bet him for it.”
“Bet? But in what?”
“In the sacrifice! It is one great fight, and much betting occurs, even amongst slaves. You must bet on the winner, and then you can win.”
Robin became very reluctant when he heard this news. “How am I supposed to bet on the winner when I don’t even know who’s gonna compete, let alone win?”
“Aha! Very good birdy! That’s the part I don’t have answer for. But maybe you do? Smart birdy, you are, I know.”
“So is it you who’s competing,” Robin asked, hopeful.
“Birdy, I won’t even be at the sacrifice. I’m too much prize for Captain. Last thing he do is have me compete. But look, they are almost done setting up his tent. I must go, birdy—you must complete the rest by yourself!” Peter turned his mule and began to ride away.
“Wait,” Robin said, “what are you going to do? How are we going to escape!”
“Don’t worry about that! Just worry about the gun!” Peter hollered back before he returned the hood over his head and plodded off toward the Captain’s tent.
It was nearly dark and the final ward on the line was filing into the corral when Robin returned, riding past the other non-officer Riders who crowded around a large kettle with their spoons and bowls, ready to fill their bellies with the night’s ration of broth. Robin was not hungry. He walked around the pen to the other side, where he eventually found Vermouth, sitting on the ground beside his weakened chained companion, whom he tenderly fed with spoonfuls of corn paste.
“Vermouth!” Robin said, startling the weak one who coughed on the food.
Vermouth patted him on the back, saying, “Easy, Sid, don’t cough away your dinner.”
Turning from his chainmate, Sid, Vermouth put down the bowl and spoon and addressed Robin.
“Good Rider. To what do I owe the pleasure? Or wait, let me guess—news of the sacrifice?” queried Vermouth.
“That’s right,” said Robin. “It’s going to be bloody for sure. A great fight, I’m told, amongst true fighters—a winner-take-all sort of situation, I guess.”
“And what’s the prize?” asked Vermouth.
“That I don’t know,” said Robin, “but it’s beside the point. I just need to know who is gonna win.”
“A betting man, are you? I do have some slight familiarity with the rumors of these Red Rider brawls, so I think I may be safe in saying that it will be easy to ascertain a winner, if you are so inclined.”
“I am. But how do you know? Who’s gonna be the winner?”
“Why,” said Vermouth, standing up and striking a confident pose with his hands on his hips, “I suppose it will have to be me.”
Robin laughed nervously. “Vermouth, I’m serious. I’m talking about not only fighting but winning. This bet is of real importance, not just to me but to other people as well, maybe.” He stared intently at Vermouth until the hunchback nodded in understanding.
“Then put all your confidence in Vermouth, because I won’t disappoint.”
“Or die trying,” said Robin grimly. “You sure?”
Vermouth relaxed his pose and looked at Robin with all seriousness.
“Good Rider, just get me in that fight and I’ll do the rest.”
That night, Robin was woken up for his watch by another Rider. Robin asked him what he knew about the Lieutenant Scout at the front of the line. The Rider told Greenbeak to stay clear away from that man, because he was close to the Captain, just as dangerous, and much crueler. Robin kept watch for the rest of the night, and when the first drop of darkness melted into a dark grey at the edge of the eastern horizon the camps were woken up and the coffles were brought to assemble before the Captain outside of the corral, underneath the threat of the suspended fort. The Captain, a man of few words at the last gathering, was more verbose on this occasion. He spoke vaguely of the bloody history of this abandoned city, as Vermouth had done, and said it was his personal calling to offer a sacrifice when passing through these twin buttes, each sortie. Today, the Captain said, the sacrifice would be in the form of an open fight, a duel to the death amongst the most able slaves competing for the top prize—a red duster.
“The winner must kill many to earn this prize, a great honor for both slave and their warden Rider, and so, with battle, the sacrifice is made the Old City of Blood demands!” the Captain shouted and a great cheer came from the Riders and even the mouths of a few slaves, anxious for an opportunity to free themselves by victory or death.
The Captain quieted everyone down, before saying several able competitors had already been chosen, and if anyone else cared to make the ultimate sacrifice, they must approach now before the fight or miss out. Robin nodded at Vermouth and they quickly made their way to the front of the crowd to speak with the Captain. Coffles and Riders crowded around the corral in anticipation of the sacrificial slaughter.
At the gate to the corral, the Captain stood with three pairs of large, strong slaves, each seemingly more competent in a fight than the last. The men, standing bare-chested, looked healthy and bloodthirsty, as if their respective Rider wardens had been training and protecting them for just such an occasion. Robin approached the Captain with Vermouth and his chainmate Sid. The Captain gave one look at Robin, Vermouth and Sid, and laughed. He told them to get lost, but an odd lanky man with a rope of dried fruit around his neck standing next to the Captain said these two would make for funny sport, and a little hilarity was sometimes good to mix with the serious business of the sacrifice. The Captain acquiesced, and in a quick moment Vermouth and Sid were parted from Robin and stripped of their shirts, joining the other fighters at the gate of the corral. Robin looked at the man who had convinced the Captain and realized, with horror, it was the Lieutenant Scout; strung around his neck was not dried fruit but a necklace of scalps. The gates were opened and the slaves were kicked in, two by two. Robin took a deep breath of courage and, ignoring the blood-rotten skin and crispy human hair decorating the upper body of the Lieutenant Scout, approached to have a word.
“I bet you the hunchback wins,” Robin said quickly before he knew what he was really doing. The Lieutenant assumed Robin was speaking to someone else at first, but turned around with no small wonder when he felt Robin’s lingering gaze.
“The freak? That’s a deadly damned foolish thing to say if you can’t back it up, boy,” said the Lieutenant. “You up to the devil’s business? Most like you’ve lost your common sense. Look at that limp it’s got.”
“I bet you the silver revolver.”
The words stunned the Lieutenant, who grabbed Robin by the front of his duster and pulled him to his face.
“I done showed that revolver to hardly no one,” he snarled angrily. “How do you know ‘bout it.”
Robin pushed the Lieutenant’s hands off his duster and took a step backward to brush himself off.
“I just know about it is all. We gotta bet?”
The Lieutenant stared Robin up and down for a second and then gave a laugh.
“You’re the runt we pulled from the cliffs, right? Well, I’ll be damned. You want your gun back, is it? You’re a damn fool, betting on that circus trash.”
Robin pulled out the golden coin from his pocket and the Lieutenant gasped.
“Where’d you get that,” the Lieutenant asked in a hurried whisper.
“Do you want it or not,” Robin asked.
The Lieutenant snorted and gave the revolver a look of disgust.
“Sure, you got yourself a bet. Silver’s for slaves, anyway. But let me tell you one thing,” the Lieutenant said as he leaned in, the smell of rotten scalps decaying inside Robin’s nostrils, “you lose, and I’ll take your scalp too.”
Robin watched and cheered, louder than the rest, as five pairs of slaves were shut into the corral. Each had a pointed stick in hand. One slave amongst the pairs, more mammoth than the rest, immediately seemed to have the upper hand, as his chainmate was also extremely nimble and agile, and the observers thought that pair to have the best chance in winning the fight. But the other fighting pairs noticed this right off as well and, ganging up on those most able fighters, stabbed them to a bloody death in less than a minute. Meanwhile, Vermouth and Sid had hurried around the entirety of the corral and were standing again by the guarded gate, where mounted Riders with rifles prevented the slaves with sticks from attacking others than themselves.
Disposing of the biggest threat, the three remaining fighting pairs eyed each other warily for a moment, until they realized that where there was three there should be four. The crowd began yelling and cheering fiercely, screaming the coward hunchback and his weak chainmate were hiding in fear, trying to run away. The Lieutenant Scout and Coyote looked at each other with murderous smiles. Robin watched with desperate anticipation, knowing everything was staked on Vermouth’s blowhard eloquence.
The three fighter pairs, having been such a good team in taking out the strongest pair, approached the weakest with bloodthirsty confidence. Backed up against the corral gate, Vermouth stepped in front of Sid and struck the same pose Robin had seen earlier. On this occasion, the crowd and his fighter peers burst into loud laughter. The Riders at the gate were distracted enough to let their guard down for but a brief second, long enough for Sid to reach through the corral and snatch a rifle from an unsuspecting Rider’s hands. In the quickest of moments the rifle was in the hunchback’s hands; and he cocked it, set it against his overgrown shoulder, and delicately pulled the trigger with the practice of a fine marksman. Before any Rider or slave could react, Vermouth shot one each of the three onrushing pairs, in an explosion of noise and blood, decidedly slowing down the attack of their other three chainmates. The crowd gasped in surprise and some called for the fight to stop, to remove the hunchback and rifle so the fighters could return to the sticks, but Robin saw Vermouth knew what the Coyote knew; the fight has no rules, it is only the sacrifice that is important, the death and the spilling of blood within the Old City. The three remaining fighters, immobilized, were circled by Vermouth and Sid, and the crowd became excited in anticipation of more death. The fighters dragged their fallen chainmates, clumsily swinging their sticks at the ever out of reach Vermouth, as the hunchback shot them point blank, one by one, with a delicate squeeze and loud percussion, until at last, there was silence and he stood, hunched and victorious. The crowd cheered, and the Captain was let through the gate into the bloody corral, an empty red duster in his hand.
“Bravo, hunchback,” said the Captain, holding up the duster by the shoulders, as if waiting for the right man to put it on. “But unfortunately, this is a sacrifice, and there can be only one victor. So, who is it going to be?”
Sid stared at Vermouth in horror and made a lunge for his throat. Vermouth, however, already had the muzzle of the rifle pointed at Sid’s chest. The gun fired and both men tumbled to the ground. One got up, and when Robin saw him rise with a limp and a hump he was never happier. The crowd cheered, and the Coyote surveyed the blood on the sloppy corral grounds, looking pleased. A chant of ‘hunchback’ was heard, as the manacles were taken off; and Vermouth, rubbing his wrists, exchanged the rifle for his reward.
“Here, kid,” said the Lieutenant as he put the silver revolver in Robin’s hands. “Damndest thing I ever saw. Devil’s business I say,” the Lieutenant cursed as he walked off shaking his head.
Robin quickly put the revolver in his pocket, thankful for its cool touch to be so near again. The Lieutenant skulked away as the Coyote approached. The Captain shook Robin’s hand, and told him what a fine sacrifice that was, and how the warden of the victor is always given due honor and respect. The Coyote insisted, especially since the victor was a lame but crafty hunchback, the respect was increased as had been the risk; for to back a loser brings great shame, but to back a winner brings reward. Robin looked back into the corral as Vermouth, limping over a pool of blood soaking into the dirt, shrugged the duster over his big hunch, and gave Robin a quick and nearly imperceptible wink…