Canon, Horse, & Pike
By Richard P. Alvarez
The nightmare was always the same. He was tunneling out of this prison. Impossible of course, as the walls were cased stone. But in the dream, he had found a way; a chink in the wall that he had diligently exploited. Day after day, digging and scratching his way toward the sun.
He knew there was daylight, for the air hole placed high in the wall of his cell allowed the sun to stream in at an odd angle. He had worked out the orientation of the chateau wall by means of the sunbeam. By his calculation, the wall was only ten feet thick.
Ten feet from freedom. A little more than one and a half body lengths.
In his dream, he was about to break through. Freedom lay less than a foot from the end of his tunnel. For some odd reason–for dreams had their own rationale that made perfect sense in their depths, but never so in the light of day–he was lying on his back. The tunnel he had worked on for so long, started with a wide mouth, and then narrowed as it progressed toward the exterior wall of Chateau Le Claire. He had managed by sheer force of will to wedge himself head first against the hard square stone that represented the last barrier to freedom. In his dream mind, he was going use his head as a battering ram, push with his legs, dislodge the heavily mortared stone, and emerge, birth-like into the light of eternal freedom.
He bent his knees slightly, and placed his bare feet against the hard rough surface of his tunnel. He had long ago been deprived of his fine riding boots. He flexed his knees and pushed, driving himself backwards along the rubble of the interior wall. The loose stones and gravel worked as a kind of crude lubricant, rolling and clawing beneath his back, allowing him to slide forward. The first shove was easy enough, the second, brought him to within a foot. But because the passage narrowed, he was unable to raise his knees high enough to push the last few inches.
He managed to twist his wrists so that his hands found the sides of the channel. He pushed hard, and with a slight wriggle of his hips, his head touched cold stone.
He could hear the river beyond. He fancied he could see daylight through a crack in the mortar. Surely, the stone would fall with one more push.
He struggled to raise a hand.
His arms were pinned by his sides.
The cold stone rubble of the wall was less than an inch from his scratched and bloodied nose. Every breath dislodged dust that dropped into his gasping mouth.
He could move his feet. Wiggle them freely. He managed to raise them from the unforgiving surface upon which they rested, but they were useless in generating any forward movement.
He was trapped in a dead end.
All for nothing.
The rational lucid mind that sometimes tags along with the dream mind, said to him, “Lucien, you must wriggle out, and spend MORE time widening the hole. It is the only way. Patient careful excavation and planning will provide you with success. Do NOT be in such a hurry. Do NOT panic. Simply wriggle out, and begin again. Back out. Withdraw. Retreat. RETREAT.”
It was always at that point, that he realized he could not withdraw from the passage.
Then it would begin. The creeping fear and panic that started in his belly, spread through his chest and out to his limbs.
There was no way to wriggle out, no way to retreat or withdraw. He had wedged himself so tightly, that locomotion in a rearward direction was impossible.
Suddenly, he became ‘disconnected’ from his own body, and he could see himself clearly, wedged in the narrow crevice like a musket ball down the barrel of a gun. It seemed as if the very walls of the Chateau were embracing him, holding him in a deathly grip that would end with his last breath.
In the dream, he would begin to scream. Although it was a weak and feeble scream for he could not draw in enough air to generate a shout. Nevertheless, scream he did. Or perhaps the word was ‘keen’. Certainly, it became a wail after time, a low moaning pitiful cry for help. With luck, the jailer would hear and come pull him out. Yes, there would be punishment. A flogging, no doubt. Yes, perhaps he would be put in the lottery immediately. But this–this feeling of being trapped–immobile, unable to move, unable to breathe, the terrible constriction, buried alive; all of his worst fears combined. Death was preferable to this.
And then, in the dream, he heard the cell door creak open. Relief, at last. He anticipated the feeling of violent hands, grasping his feet, pulling him roughly from his tomb. A kind of reverse birth. Anything would be better than this death by constraint.
A voice. Two voices. The Director of the Committee speaking in a soft low tone. And then, the horrid terrifying sound of a large stone, being wedged into place. He could feel the heavy cold building stone against his feet, pushing, pushing, wedging him tighter into this hole of his own making. He managed one last pitiful scream, utilizing the remains of air left to him within the wall.
And then he would awake.
Lucien had studied philosophy as a young man, before he ran away from the church.
Before the Revolution.
He knew that dreams were the mind’s way of working through problems. He knew he was trapped, quite literally in a hole of his own making. He should not have run away from the seminary, and joined the army. He should not have been in a hurry for advancement. He should not have taken the commission from the Committee. A revolutionary committee that saw plots and treason everywhere. He should not have been so rash with his sword, or his words, or his life. But that is the way of young men.
And now he was imprisoned, and awaited the fate of The Revolutionary Committee. Not the National Committee to be sure, but here, in the Vendée, the thirst for blood was as insatiable and as irrational as the one in Paris. Perhaps even more so. For here the counter revolutionary movement was strongest. One never knew which side would hold the day. The populace had descended into a kind of mindless rabble, barely controllable and insatiable for blood.
The spectacle of beheadings had grown tiresome of late. So they had devised their own unique variation on executions. Not content to simply send traitors, criminals, and ‘insurgents’ to the guillotine, they had come up with a new twist on equality. They called it the lottery.
Every tenth day, at the end of the New Calendar’s week, the prisoners were brought into the courtyard of the chateau, where the lots were drawn. The local citizenry gathered eagerly for the spectacle. The fact that any one of them might be informed upon and placed in the courtyard the next week did nothing to deter their enthusiasm for the spectacle. Instead, it seemed to feed their blood lust. Perhaps they thought the louder they cheered, the less likely their own selection.
The dream usually came the night before the lottery. And so it was today. Lucien waited in a cold sweat for most of the morning. There was no food on lottery day. Why feed someone who might die? No one knew who would die until the lottery was chosen and the game was played. Besides, the less food the prisoners ate, the less excrement to clean from the equipment after the executions.
The key rattled in the lock, and Lucien rose. Not a word was spoken as the guards allowed him to step outside the cell and shuffle toward the courtyard. Alexander was ahead of him, as usual. His companion had been placed in the cell next to his but try as he might, communication between them was impossible. They saw each other only on the lottery days. Arrested together, they had both survived for more than eight lotteries. Two months. Alexander’s number had been called twice already. Lucien’s, never… such were the odds.
Now, the courtyard churned with prisoners. There were a few enemy soldiers of course, Spanish and Austrian. They mingled with the French royalists as well as the counter-revolutionaries, who were barely clothed in rags. Those members of the Citizens Army like Lucien and Alexander, who were not ‘enthusiastic’ enough in fulfilling their duties or shamed their office, were deemed traitors, denounced by other soldiers. Their crime made them outcasts. A second group consisted of murderers, rapists, petty criminals, priests, witches, and crippled children. “Enemies were everywhere,” the Director proclaimed. The Terror swept them all up. A mad frenzy for death had seized upon The Committee and the town. It seemed to Lucien that even the very walls of the Chateau cried out for blood.
The prisoners stood together now. The beautifully designed implements of death loomed over them all.
Doctor Guillotine’s device for painless execution took pride of place. Painted red, it was erected on a high gallows with seven steps leading up to it. Perhaps too efficient in its methods, it was not enough for the Committee. They had devised two new schemes for execution. Or rather, revived and perfected two old ones.
Beneath the gallows and off to one side, stood “The Press”. It was a variation on the old crushing methods of the Inquisition so popular with the Spanish across the border. A prisoner is stretched upon a table, beneath a large wooden box. The box is big enough to cover the torso, but the arms and legs are left free. It delighted the crowd to see the prisoner’s expression as each heavy stone is added to the box. The look of concentration as he tries to resist the increase in pressure, the measured gasp of air blown from his lungs, and hurriedly sucked in before another rock is added. The flailing arms and legs, trying to reach up and lift the oppressive load. The horrible cheers and laughter from the Mob as cries of “Like a bug! Like a cock-roach!” filled the air. It had the added benefit of allowing for questioning during the process. Though few prisoners managed more than a gasp or violent shake of the head in response.
Below the press, was a small inclined bench, not unlike that used by a saddler or cobbler. Next to the bench was a selection of leather buckets filled with water, for use with “The Shroud.” Lucien spent many a long night contemplating that horrid death. The unfortunate victim is wrapped in a large linen cloth. The sheet bound his arms and legs tight like the mummies that had been discovered in Egypt. Again, the thought of constriction was bad enough to cause Lucien to break out in a cold sweat. At least the prisoner could still breathe, if not see, through the gauzy linen that covered the head and face.
No, it was what came next. Lucien’s vivid imagination spun out the scenario. He would be forced to recline on the bench with his head down, and then doused with cold water. First over the lower extremities, then over his torso, until finally a stream of water poured slowly over his face. A terrible slow ‘drowning’ occurred next. With his jaws wrapped shut, he could not speak or shout. The water would flood his nose, fill his throat. He might manage a gurgling, choking sob. Much like sobs that sometimes overtook Lucien in his nightmare. The Committee member who poured the water was skilled, and could drag out the process for as long as an hour sometimes.
Of course, all of the delays with The Press and The Shroud were part of the side betting in the gallery. How long would a prisoner last? How many stones? How many buckets of water? The chance to make money from the prolonged spectacle of death, made those two methods preferable to the mob.
Lucien was convinced the best death rested with the people’s razor. Doctor Guillotine’s humane device was by far the preferred method of death among the prisoners. The Committee had recently taken to placing the prisoners face up in the stocks, so they could see the blade hanging over them. No blindfold was offered, so that the prisoner had a chance to anticipate the cold bite of the steel as it rushed toward them. Despite this horror, Lucien still preferred this method to the others.
Of course, so did the other players in the lottery. This made the game even more difficult to play.
Once the prisoners were assembled, their numbered tiles were placed in a bag. Depending as much on the whim of the committee as on the necessities of managing the prison population, there could be as many as six but never less than two executions. Lucien suspected the number of spectators and the level of betting also figured into that number.
Lucien looked up into the gallery. It was not a huge crowd today, as harvest was approaching. The overcast skies brought the possibility of a storm. Likely many of the populace were in the fields, working to bring in the hay before the rain.
The Director called for the tiles, and the bag was brought forth. He made a show of reaching deep inside, and stirring the tiles around. You could hear their clicking in the silence of the courtyard. Finally, he withdrew one.
“Prisoner six oh seven one…” The prisoners looked about for a moment. Who belonged to that number? An old man stumbled forward. Lucien knew him to be the village priest. Rather, had been the priest.
“I am six oh seven one…” He said calmly. The Director nodded and reached in for another tile.
“One one three two?” No one came forward. He checked the tile again. “One One Three Two? Come come…”
Finally a gasp and a muffled cry. A young girl was pushed out of the gathering of prisoners. She could not have been twenty years old, thought Lucien. Though prison grime, filth and vermin had tarnished her appearance, she must have been pretty before she was incarcerated.
“Ah,” nodded the Director. “We have a priest, and a prostitute, how appropriate. Front and center.”
The girl shook so badly, she could barely walk. Two guards dragged her before the Director. The priest raised his hand to speak. “If it please the Director, spare the girl, I will willingly take whatever fate you decide.”
At his comment, the crowd began shouting out their preferences, “The Shroud! The Press!” The Director raised his hand for silence, and spoke loudly to the priest.
“You pretend to place yourself above the prostitute with your offer of sacrifice. Our new order requires us all to be EQUAL. We are all to submit to the fortunes of fate as brothers. Therefore, you MUST play the game,” here he paused for maximum dramatic effect, “or you both die.”
Now the girl collapsed completely and the Priest tried to offer her comfort. He raised a hand to bless her but was struck by one of the guards. The butt of the rifle opened a gaping wound in his forehead. Lucien thought that even if the Priest survived the test, he would likely die from that concussion before the night was out.
“You know the game,” shouted the Director.
The Game was a variation on the barracks game Lucien had learned in the cavalry. A game called “Canon, Horse and Pike” by some, “Cavalry, Infantry, and Artillery” by others. It was a simple game of lots. Two and sometimes three players would face off and ‘throw’ a hand symbol at one another on the count of three. A clenched fist represented a canon ball. An open palm represented the field of cavalry. And two fingers represented the two legs of a standing infantry or pike-man. At the count of three, each player would slap the symbol into his palm. Canon defeated Pike-men. Pike frustrated Horse, and the Horse could outmaneuver and defeat the Canon. The game was often played to pay for drinks, or to determine who would draw unpleasant duty.
The Committee decided to incorporate the civilian name for the game, Rock, Paper and Scissors into a method of choosing one’s own death. Rock (The Press) defeats Scissors (The Guillotine). While Scissors defeats Paper (The Shroud) which in turn, defeats the Rock.
This forced the prisoner to choose his preferred method of death if he lost. In practice however, most people chose the guillotine. Tie the game three times, and both prisoners died. One would get the Press, the other the Shroud. As Lucien understood it, in such a case, the house collected all bets… and the gallery had to content themselves with double kills. Though side bets were placed in the gallery as to which would die first.
“On the count of three…” intoned the Director.
The Priest stepped forward and tried to whisper something to the girl. This was, no doubt, an effort to co-ordinate the throw. He was rewarded with another blow to the head, and told to turn his back on the young girl. There would be no eye contact, no nod or silent whisper. Like duelists, the pair faced away from each other, and raised their right hands for the count.
“One…” shouted the Director. He drew out the count so that the crowd could join him.
“Two…” came the call from the gallery. The prisoners brought their hands down in unison. Not to do so, would simply incur the double penalty.
“THREE!” the courtyard reverberated with a shout.
As Lucien expected, both prisoners threw scissors.
Mild applause went up. Money changed hands. The girl began crying. The priest smiled softly to himself, and raised his hand. Lucien felt certain he knew what the Priest’s next throw would be.
“One… Two… Three…”
The Mob roared its approval.
Perhaps anticipating that the girl would choose the guillotine again, the Priest threw paper. Lucien had no doubt it was an effort at self-sacrifice. Unfortunately, the girl threw ‘rock’. Whether it was a conscious choice, or one born of fear or paralysis, it did not matter. The choice was made.
When she turned to face the Priest, her legs gave way again. There would be no struggle. She resembled nothing less than a child’s rag doll, as the guards lifted her by her arms and legs and carried her over to the table. Her head lolled back and her eyes closed as they placed her beneath the box. It was lowered to cover her small breasts and abdomen. For a brief moment, Lucien wondered if this was somehow more painful for women than men. Perhaps that was why it was the preferred method of killing witches during the Inquisition.
The wooden cradle itself probably weighed a hundred pounds, enough to pin the girl against the hard oak table. But the guards still held her arms and legs, as the first large stone was lifted from the pile. It took two men to handle it gracefully.
“ONE” the crowd chanted. Money changed hands. The large building stone was added gently to the cradle. Each stone weighed about fifty pounds.
“Two,” the Mob’s anticipation was apparent.
Lucien had watched in amazement two weeks ago, as an old barrel-chested Hussar took two dozen stones, and laughed aloud. They had to go out and bring in more stones. In the end, he held out for over an hour against more than a thousand pounds. But then, Lucien had known men to survive beneath the weight of a horse for half a day on the battlefield.
“Three” – and the girl gave out a cry. She was sobbing and gasping now as her arms and legs pulled against the grip of her guards.
“Four” – Close to three hundred pounds bore down upon her. Some men weigh that much, thought Lucien. It is possible this prostitute had felt that much weight before. If indeed, she was a prostitute and not some poor farm girl who had accused the wrong soldier of rape.
“Five” – Now the guards released their grip. Ropes from the framework above the table supported the cradle. There was no way for the girl to move it from her body. However, the poor girl tried nevertheless. Her arms jerked upwards but her frame was so narrow she could not actually embrace the box. She could only add her broken and bloodied fingernails to the mass of scratches on either side of the wood. She tried to arch her back, to no avail. It seemed to Lucien she could not take another stone.
“Six” – Her face became deep crimson. Her head shook from side to side. Her eyes bulged out. Finally, she gasped her last deep breath… and the box inched lower. There was no way for her to draw another breath, no way even to scream. Her head flailed for a moment, her fingers and legs jerking wildly. Then the flailing began to slow. Her eyes searched the gallery for something. Help? Pity? Sympathy?
Humanity, thought Lucien. She was searching for some sign of humanity. But the Terror had driven all humanity from the populace long ago. She managed very tiny, very rapid gasps as she clung to life.
“Seven” – And her eyes rolled up into her head. The mob leaned forward in silence, the better to hear the death shudder. No, thought Lucien, the better to FEED off of it. He could detect the subtle cracking sounds of her rib cage giving way. A last gurgling choke, and then blood pooled in her mouth, to trickle off to one side of her purple face. A murmur of approval and then loud cheers went up, as more money changed hands.
It took some time to remove the stones, and the body. During that interval, the Director read off the latest edicts handed down from the Central Committee in Paris. It did not really matter what was read. It was all contradictory madness. The entire world had gone crazy, and Lucien was caught up with it. The dream of fraternity, equality and liberty had been hijacked, and used as an excuse for chaos and anarchy.
Now the lottery bag was brought forth again. There would be at least one more death. That was the worst part of the lottery, not knowing how long it would go on. Would your number be called? Would you win the game? It was enough to drive any one insane.
“Five seven five nine,” called The Director in a cool manner.
That was familiar. Lucien glanced toward Alexander and saw a brave nod of the head. He had survived two drawings already. With the number of prisoners constantly in flux, it made Lucien wonder if the lottery itself was not rigged somehow. The Director drew another.
“Seven one three nine”
The voice rang in his ears. His head snapped up. He had heard wrong, certainly. “Seven ONE THREE NINE”
No, it was his number. He stepped forward out of the crowd, and snapped to attention. He was going to die like a professional soldier. He turned his head toward Alexander. His Sergeant rendered a crisp salute to the young commanding officer. Lucien returned it sharply.
Together, they marched toward the center of the courtyard and stopped with a sharp stomp of their feet. Lucien wanted to embrace Alexander. A kiss goodbye, no hard feelings whatever the outcome. But that was not going to be permitted. Instead, he reached out to shake hands.
The gun butt took the wind from Lucien’s gut. The rough hands of the guards spun him around to face the south side of the gallery.
“On my count,” began the Director.
“ONE”… shouted The Mob.
Think. Think. Think. Almost everyone chose scissors first. Alexander would know that.
Artillery covers infantry. So if Lucien chose artillery, and Alexander chose infantry, the Sergeant would die by the blade. A fast, painless death.
“THREE”… and Lucien threw the canon ball.
A groan came up from the crowd. Lucien knew instantly they had a tie. Both men then, had chosen the canon ball, the ‘rock’.
“Again citizens, if you please!”
No, it did not please Lucien, but he had no choice.
Alexander must want the same thing I do, a clean death for his friend.
He knows I want the guillotine, so he will choose the rock. For a clean death, I should choose the scissors.
Lucien did not consciously will it, but he slammed down his open palm. He chose cavalry. It would cover artillery. He would live, and Alexander would die.
Again, the groan went up from the crowd.
Impossibly, Alexander had chosen the same. Lucien felt a flush of shame flow over his face. How had he been so craven as to choose life over death, and send Alexander to his grave? Yet, Alexander had chosen the same. Well, they were both cavalrymen, after all. There remained a single chance for one of them to live.
Did he think I would choose cavalry for my death? To choose ‘paper’… bound by that linen shroud, unable to move my arms and legs, helpless to do anything but wiggle, and gasp in water, slowly choking to death? Did Alexander wish to see me suffer the agonizing and prolonged panic of drowning in an open courtyard for the pleasure of the committee?
Yet the horrid fate of death by crushing brought back fresh memories of his nightmare. He could smell the mortar of the walls closing in around him. Feel the panic rise in his chest. He could not bring himself to wish that upon Alexander, or accept it for himself. If he chose infantry – scissors, would Alexander do the same, sentencing them both to slow, and torturous deaths?
“THREE” – and his hand came down.
The Mob roared its approval. He had heard it before. It was different from the sound of a third tie. The Mob was happy. Someone had won a lot of money. One of them would die.
Lucien turned slowly, holding his hand out in front of him.
He looked directly into Alexander’s eyes, and then down at his lover’s hand, tightly clinched in the fist of a canon ball.
Lucien looked down at his own hand, and saw the two fingers of the infantry again.
Lucien’s knees went weak. He felt his bladder let go, but thankfully, there was little piss in him to shame him.
He shrugged off the grip of the two guards, and stepped smartly to the gallows. He reached the machine on unsteady legs, and turned to rest against the table. One of the guards stepped forward to tie his hands. He waved him off. Certain he could contain himself, and not reach up in a vein attempt to stop the onrushing blade. That was the most curious result from having the victims lie face up, they often lost both hands an instant before the blade cut through their neck.
“It will be swift.” He told himself. “I can close my eyes…” He tried to think of a prayer. Something to say. Did he still believe in God? Had God abandoned him, when he abandoned the seminary to enlist? He had risen quickly through the ranks. Then again, that was not saying much in the atmosphere of the terror.
The wood was smooth and warm against his back. He guessed the meager sunlight had managed to warm it up.
The guards placed their hands on his shoulders, and slid the wooden table forward on its rails, until his head bumped against the stock. He managed to lift his feet, and shuffle backwards without difficulty, placing the back of his neck in the lower cradle. The wooden top stock locked down sharply in place. He could still breathe easily, and yes, he could clearly see the bevel of the heavy blade hanging high above his head.
His bowels let loose.
He noted the dark clouds, scuttling across the sky. It made the blade appear to be moving, the same way the dock appears to move when one is standing looking at the water. He wished he could remember a prayer.
He wished he could not hear the crowd.
It would be swift. Painless. Perhaps a brief flash of light, and then… release.
He tried to close his eyes at the last moment, but somehow found himself staring at the blade. Something was wrong. It crept ever so slowly toward his neck. But this is impossible. It would not do. It would stop before it reached him. He felt as if he should laugh.
Then, the bright flash of lightning, and the roar of thunder, which sounded like the crowd. Suddenly the world tumbled. The sky spun crazily and he caught a quick glimpse of the Mob. The dark brown wicker of the basket obscured his view. Had he fallen from the machine?
He tried to get up. His arms and legs would not respond. He was bound, wrapped and immobile. He felt the age-old panic of entrapment. He opened his mouth to scream, but could not draw a breath.
A sudden sharp grip of hands in his hair, and he was yanked from the basket and held high in the air. A terrible horror washed over him. He could not move. He could not breathe, and he could clearly see the crowd cheering his death.
His eyes rolled for a moment, before coming to rest. Lucien’s last living image would be that of his friend and lover, Alexander, standing stoically in the front line of prisoners.
He wished he could return the salute.
I met the very talented artist and illustrator Douglas Brown, when he was chosen to pen the artwork for the graphic novel “After Twilight”, that I co-wrote with Gary Watson and Sandra Yates. He did a fantastic job on all six issues. To see more of his work, purchase samples, or to inquire about commissions, go to;