The gunslinger, p.10
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       The Gunslinger, p.10

         Part #1 of The Dark Tower series by Stephen King
 
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  "We'll get up early and see if there's anything down there worth taking. Then we'll go."

  "All right." The boy paused and then said, "I'm glad I didn't kill you when you were sleeping. I had a pitchfork and I thought about doing it. But I didn't, and now I won't have to be afraid to go to sleep."

  "What would you be afraid of?"

  The boy looked at him ominously. "Spooks. Of him coming back."

  "The man in black," the gunslinger said. Not a question.

  "Yes. Is he a bad man?"

  "I guess that depends on where you're standing," the gunslinger said absently. He got up and pitched his cigarette out onto the hardpan. "I'm going to sleep."

  The boy looked at him timidly. "Can I sleep in the stable with you?"

  "Of course."

  The gunslinger stood on the steps, looking up, and the boy joined him. Old Star was up there, and Old Mother. It seemed to the gunslinger that if he closed his eyes he would be able to hear the croaking of the first spring peepers, smell the green, almost-summer smell of the court lawns after their first cutting (and hear, perhaps, the indolent click of wooden balls as the ladies of the East Wing, attired only in their shifts as dusk glimmered toward dark, played at Points), could almost see Cuthbert and Jamie as they came through the break in the hedges, calling for him to ride out with them . . .

  It was not like him to think so much of the past.

  He turned back and picked up the lamp. "Let's go to sleep," he said.

  They crossed to the stable together.

  VI

  The next morning he explored the cellar.

  Jake was right; it smelled bad. It had a wet, swampy stench that made the gunslinger feel nauseous and a little lightheaded after the antiseptic odorlessness of the desert and the stable. The cellar smelled of cabbages and turnips and potatoes with long, sightless eyes gone to everlasting rot. The ladder, however, seemed quite sturdy, and he climbed down.

  The floor was earthen, and his head almost touched the overhead beams. Down here spiders still lived, disturbingly big ones with mottled gray bodies. Many were muties, the true thread long-lost. Some had eyes on stalks, some had what might have been as many as sixteen legs.

  The gunslinger peered around and waited for his nighteyes.

  "You all right?" Jake called down nervously.

  "Yes." He focused on the corner. "There are cans. Wait."

  He went carefully to the corner, ducking his head. There was an old box with one side folded down. The cans were vegetables--green beans, yellow beans--and three cans of corned beef.

  He scooped up an armload and went back to the ladder. He climbed halfway up and handed them to Jake, who knelt to receive them. He went back for more.

  It was on the third trip that he heard the groaning in the foundations.

  He turned, looked, and felt a kind of dreamy terror wash over him, a feeling both languid and repellent.

  The foundation was composed of huge sandstone blocks that had probably been evenly cornered when the way station was new, but which were now at every zigzag, drunken angle. It made the wall look as if it were inscribed with strange, meandering hieroglyphics. And from the joining of two of these abstruse cracks, a thin spill of sand was running, as if something on the other side was digging itself through with slobbering, agonized intensity.

  The groaning rose and fell, becoming louder, until the whole cellar was full of the sound, an abstract noise of ripping pain and dreadful effort.

  "Come up!" Jake screamed. "Oh Jesus, mister, come up!"

  "Go away," the gunslinger said calmly. "Wait outside. If I don't come up by the time you count to two . . . no, three hundred, get the hell out."

  "Come up!" Jake screamed again.

  The gunslinger didn't answer. He pulled leather with his right hand.

  There was a hole as big as a coin in the wall now. He could hear, through the curtain of his own terror, Jake's pattering feet as the boy ran. Then the spill of sand stopped. The groaning ceased, but there was a sound of steady, labored breathing.

  "Who are you?" the gunslinger asked.

  No answer.

  And in the High Speech, his voice filling with the old thunder of command, Roland demanded: "Who are you, Demon? Speak, if you would speak. My time is short; my patience shorter."

  "Go slow," a dragging, clotted voice said from within the wall. And the gunslinger felt the dream-like terror deepen and grow almost solid. It was the voice of Alice, the woman he had stayed with in the town of Tull. But she was dead; he had seen her go down himself, a bullet hole between her eyes. Fathoms seemed to swim by his eyes, descending. "Go slow past the Drawers, gunslinger. Watch for the taheen. While you travel with the boy, the man in black travels with your soul in his pocket."

  "What do you mean? Speak on!"

  But the breathing was gone.

  The gunslinger stood for a moment, frozen, and then one of the huge spiders dropped on his arm and scrambled frantically up to his shoulder. With an involuntary grunt he brushed it away and got his feet moving. He did not want to do the next thing, but custom was strict, inviolable. Take the dead from the dead, the old proverb said; only a corpse may speak true prophecy. He went to the hole and punched at it. The sandstone crumbled easily at the edges, and with a bare stiffening of muscles, he thrust his hand through the wall.

  And touched something solid, with raised and fretted knobs. He drew it out. He held a jawbone, rotted at the far hinge. The teeth leaned this way and that.

  "All right," he said softly. He thrust it rudely into his back pocket and went back up the ladder, carrying the last cans awkwardly. He left the trapdoor open. The sun would get in and kill the mutie spiders.

  Jake was halfway across the stable yard, cowering on the cracked, rubbly hardpan. He screamed when he saw the gunslinger, backed away a step or two, and then ran to him, crying.

  "I thought it got you, that it got you. I thought--"

  "It didn't. Nothing got me." He held the boy to him, feeling his face, hot against his chest, and his hands, dry against his ribcage. He could feel the rapid beating of the boy's heart. It occurred to him later that this was when he began to love the boy--which was, of course, what the man in black must have planned all along. Was there ever a trap to match the trap of love?

  "Was it a demon?" The voice was muffled.

  "Yes. A speaking-demon. We don't have to go back there anymore. Come on. Let's shake a mile."

  They went to the stable, and the gunslinger made a rough pack from the blanket he'd slept under--it was hot and prickly, but there was nothing else. That done, he filled the waterbags from the pump.

  "You carry one of the waterbags," the gunslinger said. "Wear it around your shoulders--see?"

  "Yes." The boy looked up at him worshipfully, the look quickly masked. He slung one of the bags over his shoulders.

  "Is it too heavy?"

  "No. It's fine."

  "Tell me the truth, now. I can't carry you if you get a sunstroke."

  "I won't have a sunstroke. I'll be okay."

  The gunslinger nodded.

  "We're going to the mountains, aren't we?"

  "Yes."

  They walked out into the steady smash of the sun. Jake, his head as high as the swing of the gunslinger's elbows, walked to his right and a little ahead, the rawhide-wrapped ends of the waterbag hanging nearly to his shins. The gunslinger had crisscrossed two more waterbags across his shoulders and carried the sling of food in his armpit, his left arm holding it against his body. In his right hand was his pack, his poke, and the rest of his gunna.

  They passed through the far gate of the way station and found the blurred ruts of the stage track again. They had walked perhaps fifteen minutes when Jake turned around and waved at the two buildings. They seemed to huddle in the titanic space of the desert.

  "Goodbye!" Jake cried. "Goodbye!" Then he turned back to the gunslinger, looking troubled. "I feel like something's watching us."

  "Something or someone
," the gunslinger agreed.

  "Was someone hiding there? Hiding there all along?"

  "I don't know. I don't think so."

  "Should we go back? Go back and--"

  "No. We're done with that place."

  "Good," Jake said fervently.

  They walked. The stage track breasted a frozen sand drumlin, and when the gunslinger looked around, the way station was gone. Once again there was the desert, and that only.

  VII

  They were three days out of the way station; the mountains were deceptively clear now. They could see the smooth, stepped rise of the desert into foothills, the first naked slopes, the bedrock bursting through the skin of the earth in sullen, eroded triumph. Further up, the land gentled off briefly again, and for the first time in months or years the gunslinger could see real, living green. Grass, dwarf spruces, perhaps even willows, all fed by snow runoff from further up. Beyond that the rock took over again, rising in cyclopean, tumbled splendor all the way to the blinding snowcaps. Off to the left, a huge slash showed the way to the smaller, eroded sandstone cliffs and mesas and buttes on the far side. This draw was obscured in the almost continual gray membrane of showers. At night, Jake would sit fascinated for the few minutes before he fell into sleep, watching the brilliant swordplay of the far-off lightning, white and purple, startling in the clarity of the night air.

  The boy was fine on the trail. He was tough, but more than that, he seemed to fight exhaustion with a calm reservoir of will which the gunslinger appreciated and admired. He didn't talk much and he didn't ask questions, not even about the jawbone, which the gunslinger turned over and over in his hands during his evening smoke. He caught a sense that the boy felt highly flattered by the gunslinger's companionship--perhaps even exalted by it--and this disturbed him. The boy had been placed in his path--While you travel with the boy, the man in black travels with your soul in his pocket--and the fact that Jake was not slowing him down only opened the way to more sinister possibilities.

  They passed the symmetrical campfire leavings of the man in black at regular intervals, and it seemed to the gunslinger that these leavings were much fresher now. On the third night, the gunslinger was sure that he could see the distant spark of another campfire, somewhere in the first rising swell of the foothills. This did not please him as much as he once might have believed. One of Cort's sayings occurred to him: 'Ware the man who fakes a limp.

  Near two o'clock on the fourth day out from the way station, Jake reeled and almost fell.

  "Here, sit down," the gunslinger said.

  "No, I'm okay."

  "Sit down."

  The boy sat obediently. The gunslinger squatted close by, so Jake would be in his shadow.

  "Drink."

  "I'm not supposed to until--"

  "Drink."

  The boy drank, three swallows. The gunslinger wet the tail of the blanket, which held a good deal less now, and applied the damp fabric to the boy's wrists and forehead, which were fever-dry.

  "From now on we rest every afternoon at this time. Fifteen minutes. Do you want to sleep?"

  "No." The boy looked at him with shame. The gunslinger looked back blandly. In an abstracted way he withdrew one of the bullets from his belt and began to twirl it howken between his fingers. The boy watched, fascinated.

  "That's neat," he said.

  The gunslinger nodded. "Yar!" He paused. "When I was your age, I lived in a walled city, did I tell you that?"

  The boy shook his head sleepily.

  "Sure. And there was an evil man--"

  "The priest?"

  "Well, sometimes I wonder about that, tell you true," the gunslinger said. "If they were two, I think now they must have been brothers. Maybe even twins. But did I ever see 'em together? No, I never did. This bad man . . . this Marten . . . he was a wizard. Like Merlin. Do they ken Merlin where you come from?"

  "Merlin and Arthur and the knights of the Round Table," Jake said dreamily.

  The gunslinger felt a nasty jolt go through him. "Yes," he said. "Arthur Eld, you say true, I say thank ya. I was very young . . ."

  But the boy was asleep sitting up, his hands folded neatly in his lap.

  "Jake."

  "Yar!"

  The sound of this word from the boy's mouth startled him badly, but the gunslinger wouldn't let his voice show it. "When I snap my fingers, you'll wake up. You'll be rested and fresh. Do you kennit?"

  "Yes."

  "Lie over, then."

  The gunslinger got makings from his poke and rolled a cigarette. There was something missing. He searched for it in his diligent, careful way and located it. The missing thing was his previous maddening sense of hurry, the feeling that he might be left behind at any time, that the trail would die out and he would be left with only a last fading footprint. All that was gone now, and the gunslinger was slowly becoming sure that the man in black wanted to be caught. 'Ware the man who fakes a limp.

  What would follow?

  The question was too vague to catch his interest. Cuthbert would have found interest in it, lively interest (and probably a joke), but Cuthbert was as gone as the Horn o' Deschain, and the gunslinger could only go forward in the way he knew.

  He watched the boy as he smoked, and his mind turned back on Cuthbert, who had always laughed (to his death he had gone laughing), and Cort, who never laughed, and on Marten, who sometimes smiled--a thin, silent smile that had its own disquieting gleam . . . like an eye that slips open in the dark and discloses blood. And there had been the falcon, of course. The falcon was named David, after the legend of the boy with the sling. David, he was quite sure, knew nothing but the need for murder, rending, and terror. Like the gunslinger himself. David was no dilettante; he played the center of the court.

  Except maybe at the end.

  The gunslinger's stomach seemed to rise painfully against his heart, but his face didn't change. He watched the smoke of his cigarette rise into the hot desert air and disappear, and his mind went back.

  VIII

  The sky was white, perfectly white, the smell of rain strong in the air. The smell of hedges and growing green was sweet. It was deep spring, what some called New Earth.

  David sat on Cuthbert's arm, a small engine of destruction with bright golden eyes that glared outward at nothing. The rawhide leash attached to his jesses was looped carelessly about Bert's arm.

  Cort stood aside from the two boys, a silent figure in patched leather trousers and a green cotton shirt that had been cinched high with his old, wide infantry belt. The green of his shirt merged with the hedges and the rolling turf of the Back Courts, where the ladies had not yet begun to play at Points.

  "Get ready," Roland whispered to Cuthbert.

  "We're ready," Cuthbert said confidently. "Aren't we, Davey?"

  They spoke the low speech, the language of both scullions and squires; the day when they would be allowed to use their own tongue in the presence of others was still far. "It's a beautiful day for it. Can you smell the rain? It's--"

  Cort abruptly raised the trap in his hands and let the side fall open. The dove was out and up, trying for the sky in a quick, fluttering blast of its wings. Cuthbert pulled the leash, but he was slow; the hawk was already up and his takeoff was awkward. The hawk recovered with a brief twitch of its wings. It struck upward, trudging the air, gaining altitude over the dove, moving bullet-swift.

  Cort walked over to where the boys stood, casually, and swung his huge and twisted fist at Cuthbert's ear. The boy fell over without a sound, although his lips writhed back from his gums. A trickle of blood flowed slowly from his ear and onto the rich green grass.

  "You were slow, maggot," he said.

  Cuthbert was struggling to his feet. "I cry your pardon, Cort. It's just that I--"

  Cort swung again, and Cuthbert fell over again. The blood flowed more swiftly now.

  "Speak the High Speech," he said softly. His voice was flat, with a slight, drunken rasp. "Speak your Act of Contrition in the
speech of civilization for which better men than you will ever be have died, maggot."

  Cuthbert was getting up again. Tears stood brightly in his eyes, but his lips were pressed together in a tight line of hate which did not quiver.

  "I grieve," Cuthbert said in a voice of breathless control. "I have forgotten the face of my father, whose guns I hope someday to bear."

  "That's right, brat," Cort said. "You'll consider what you did wrong, and sharpen your reflections with hunger. No supper. No breakfast."

  "Look!" Roland cried. He pointed up.

  The hawk had climbed above the soaring dove. It glided for a moment, its stubby wings outstretched and without movement on the still, white spring air. Then it folded its wings and dropped like a stone. The two bodies came together, and for a moment Roland fancied he could see blood in the air. The hawk gave a brief scream of triumph. The dove fluttered, twisting, to the ground, and Roland ran toward the kill, leaving Cort and the chastened Cuthbert behind him.

  The hawk had landed beside its prey and was complacently tearing into its plump white breast. A few feathers seesawed slowly downward.

  "David!" the boy yelled, and tossed the hawk a piece of rabbit flesh from his poke. The hawk caught it on the fly, ingested it with an upward shaking of its back and throat, and Roland attempted to re-leash the bird.

  The hawk whirled, almost absentmindedly, and ripped skin from Roland's arm in a long, dangling gash. Then it went back to its meal.

  With a grunt, Roland looped the leash again, this time catching David's diving, slashing beak on the leather gauntlet he wore. He gave the hawk another piece of meat, then hooded it. Docilely, David climbed onto his wrist.

  He stood up proudly, the hawk on his arm.

  "What's this, can ya tell me?" Cort asked, pointing to the dripping slash on Roland's forearm. The boy stationed himself to receive the blow, locking his throat against any possible cry, but no blow fell.

  "He struck me," Roland said.

  "You pissed him off," Cort said. "The hawk does not fear you, boy, and the hawk never will. The hawk is God's gunslinger."

  Roland merely looked at Cort. He was not an imaginative boy, and if Cort had intended to imply a moral, it was lost on him; he went so far as to believe that it might have been one of the few foolish statements he had ever heard Cort make.

 
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