The gunslinger, p.3
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       The Gunslinger, p.3

         Part #1 of The Dark Tower series by Stephen King
 
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  Five days had passed since the last hut, and he had begun to suspect there would be no more when he topped the last eroded hill and saw the familiar low-backed sod roof.

  The dweller, a surprisingly young man with a wild shock of strawberry hair that reached almost to his waist, was weeding a scrawny stand of corn with zealous abandon. The mule let out a wheezing grunt and the dweller looked up, glaring blue eyes coming target-center on the gunslinger in a moment. The dweller was unarmed, with no bolt nor bah the gunslinger could see. He raised both hands in curt salute to the stranger and then bent to the corn again, humping up the row next to his hut with back bent, tossing devil-grass and an occasional stunted corn plant over his shoulder. His hair flopped and flew in the wind that now came directly from the desert, with nothing to break it.

  The gunslinger came down the hill slowly, leading the donkey on which his waterskins sloshed. He paused by the edge of the lifeless-looking cornpatch, drew a drink from one of his skins to start the saliva, and spat into the arid soil.

  "Life for your crop."

  "Life for your own," the dweller answered and stood up. His back popped audibly. He surveyed the gunslinger without fear. The little of his face visible between beard and hair seemed unmarked by the rot, and his eyes, while a bit wild, seemed sane. "Long days and pleasant nights, stranger."

  "And may you have twice the number."

  "Unlikely," the dweller replied, and voiced a curt laugh. "I don't have nobbut corn and beans," he said. "Corn's free, but you'll have to kick something in for the beans. A man brings them out once in a while. He don't stay long." The dweller laughed shortly. "Afraid of spirits. Afraid of the bird-man, too."

  "I saw him. The bird-man, I mean. He fled me."

  "Yar, he's lost his way. Claims to be looking for a place called Algul Siento, only sometimes he calls it Blue Haven or Heaven, I can't make out which. Has thee heard of it?"

  The gunslinger shook his head.

  "Well . . . he don't bite and he don't bide, so fuck him. Is thee alive or dead?"

  "Alive," the gunslinger said. "You speak as the Manni do."

  "I was with 'em awhile, but that was no life for me; too chummy, they are, and always looking for holes in the world."

  This was true, the gunslinger reflected. The Manni-folk were great travelers.

  The two of them looked at each other in silence for a moment, and then the dweller put out his hand. "Brown is my name."

  The gunslinger shook and gave his own name. As he did so, a scrawny raven croaked from the low peak of the sod roof. The dweller gestured at it briefly: "That's Zoltan."

  At the sound of its name the raven croaked again and flew across to Brown. It landed on the dweller's head and roosted, talons firmly twined in the wild thatch of hair.

  "Screw you," Zoltan croaked brightly. "Screw you and the horse you rode in on."

  The gunslinger nodded amiably.

  "Beans, beans, the musical fruit," the raven recited, inspired. "The more you eat, the more you toot."

  "You teach him that?"

  "That's all he wants to learn, I guess," Brown said. "Tried to teach him The Lord's Prayer once." His eyes traveled out beyond the hut for a moment, toward the gritty, featureless hardpan. "Guess this ain't Lord's Prayer country. You're a gunslinger. That right?"

  "Yes." He hunkered down and brought out his makings. Zoltan launched himself from Brown's head and landed, flittering, on the gunslinger's shoulder.

  "Thought your kind was gone."

  "Then you see different, don't you?"

  "Did'ee come from In-World?"

  "Long ago," the gunslinger agreed.

  "Anything left there?"

  To this the gunslinger made no reply, but his face suggested this was a topic better not pursued.

  "After the other one, I guess."

  "Yes." The inevitable question followed: "How long since he passed by?"

  Brown shrugged. "I don't know. Time's funny out here. Distance and direction, too. More than two weeks. Less than two months. The bean man's been twice since he passed. I'd guess six weeks. That's probably wrong."

  "The more you eat, the more you toot," Zoltan said.

  "Did he lay by?" the gunslinger asked.

  Brown nodded. "He stayed supper, same as you will, I guess. We passed the time."

  The gunslinger stood up and the bird flew back to the roof, squawking. He felt an odd, trembling eagerness. "What did he talk about?"

  Brown cocked an eyebrow at him. "Not much. Did it ever rain and when did I come here and had I buried my wife. He asked was she of the Manni-folk and I said yar, because it seemed like he already knew. I did most of the talking, which ain't usual." He paused, and the only sound was the stark wind. "He's a sorcerer, ain't he?"

  "Among other things."

  Brown nodded slowly. "I knew. He dropped a rabbit out of his sleeve, all gutted and ready for the pot. Are you?"

  "A sorcerer?" He laughed. "I'm just a man."

  "You'll never catch him."

  "I'll catch him."

  They looked at each other, a sudden depth of feeling between them, the dweller upon his dust-puff-dry ground, the gunslinger on the hardpan that shelved down to the desert. He reached for his flint.

  "Here." Brown produced a sulfur-headed match and struck it with a grimed nail. The gunslinger pushed the tip of his smoke into the flame and drew.

  "Thanks."

  "You'll want to fill your skins," the dweller said, turning away. "Spring's under the eaves in back. I'll start dinner."

  The gunslinger stepped gingerly over the rows of corn and went around back. The spring was at the bottom of a hand-dug well, lined with stones to keep the powdery earth from caving. As he descended the rickety ladder, the gunslinger reflected that the stones must represent two years' work easily--hauling, dragging, laying. The water was clear but slow-moving, and filling the skins was a long chore. While he was topping the second, Zoltan perched on the lip of the well.

  "Screw you and the horse you rode in on," he advised.

  The gunslinger looked up, startled. The shaft was about fifteen feet deep: easy enough for Brown to drop a rock on him, break his head, and steal everything on him. A crazy or a rotter wouldn't do it; Brown was neither. Yet he liked Brown, and so he pushed the thought out of his mind and got the rest of the water God had willed. Whatever else God willed was ka's business, not his.

  When he came through the hut's door and walked down the steps (the hovel proper was set below ground level, designed to catch and hold the coolness of the nights), Brown was poking ears of corn into the embers of a tiny fire with a crude hardwood spatula. Two ragged plates had been set at opposite ends of a dun blanket. Water for the beans was just beginning to bubble in a pot hung over the fire.

  "I'll pay for the water, too."

  Brown did not look up. "The water's a gift from God, as I think thee knows. Pappa Doc brings the beans."

  The gunslinger grunted a laugh and sat down with his back against one rude wall, folded his arms, and closed his eyes. After a little, the smell of roasting corn came to his nose. There was a pebbly rattle as Brown dumped a paper of dry beans into the pot. An occasional tak-tak-tak as Zoltan walked restlessly on the roof. He was tired; he had been going sixteen and sometimes eighteen hours a day between here and the horror that had occurred in Tull, the last village. And he had been afoot for the last twelve days; the mule was at the end of its endurance, only living because it was a habit. Once he had known a boy named Sheemie who'd had a mule. Sheemie was gone now; they were all gone now and there was only the two of them: him, and the man in black. He had heard rumor of other lands beyond this, green lands in a place called Mid-World, but it was hard to believe. Out here, green lands seemed like a child's fantasy.

  Tak-tak-tak.

  Two weeks, Brown had said, or as many as six. Didn't matter. There had been calendars in Tull, and they had remembered the man in black because of the old man he had healed on his way through. Just an old
man dying of the weed. An old man of thirty-five. And if Brown was right, he had closed a good deal of distance on the man in black since then. But the desert was next. And the desert would be hell.

  Tak-tak-tak . . .

  Lend me your wings, bird. I'll spread them and fly on the thermals.

  He slept.

  III

  Brown woke him up an hour later. It was dark. The only light was the dull cherry glare of the banked embers.

  "Your mule has passed on," Brown said. "Tell ya sorry. Dinner's ready."

  "How?"

  Brown shrugged. "Roasted and boiled, how else? You picky?"

  "No, the mule."

  "It just laid over, that's all. It looked like an old mule." And with a touch of apology: "Zoltan et the eyes."

  "Oh." He might have expected it. "All right."

  Brown surprised him again when they sat down to the blanket that served as a table by asking a brief blessing: Rain, health, expansion to the spirit.

  "Do you believe in an afterlife?" the gunslinger asked him as Brown dropped three ears of hot corn onto his plate.

  Brown nodded. "I think this is it."

  IV

  The beans were like bullets, the corn tough. Outside, the prevailing wind snuffled and whined around the ground-level eaves. The gunslinger ate quickly, ravenously, drinking four cups of water with the meal. Halfway through, there was a machine-gun rapping at the door. Brown got up and let Zoltan in. The bird flew across the room and hunched moodily in the corner.

  "Musical fruit," he muttered.

  "You ever think about eating him?" the gunslinger asked.

  The dweller laughed. "Animals that talk be tough," he said. "Birds, billy-bumblers, human beans. They be tough eatin'."

  After dinner, the gunslinger offered his tobacco. The dweller, Brown, accepted eagerly.

  Now, the gunslinger thought. Now the questions will come.

  But Brown asked no questions. He smoked tobacco that had been grown in Garlan years before and looked at the dying embers of the fire. It was already noticeably cooler in the hovel.

  "Lead us not into temptation," Zoltan said suddenly, apocalyptically.

  The gunslinger started as if he had been shot at. He was suddenly sure all this was an illusion, that the man in black had spun a spell and was trying to tell him something in a maddeningly obtuse, symbolic way.

  "Do you know Tull?" he asked suddenly.

  Brown nodded. "Came through it to get here, went back once to sell corn and drink a glass of whiskey. It rained that year. Lasted maybe fifteen minutes. The ground just seemed to open and suck it up. An hour later it was just as white and dry as ever. But the corn--God, the corn. You could see it grow. That wasn't so bad. But you could hear it, as if the rain had given it a mouth. It wasn't a happy sound. It seemed to be sighing and groaning its way out of the earth." He paused. "I had extra, so I took it and sold it. Pappa Doc said he'd do it, but he would have cheated me. So I went."

  "You don't like town?"

  "No."

  "I almost got killed there," the gunslinger said.

  "Do you say so?"

  "Set my watch and warrant on it. And I killed a man that was touched by God," the gunslinger said. "Only it wasn't God. It was the man with the rabbit up his sleeve. The man in black."

  "He laid you a trap."

  "You say true, I say thank ya."

  They looked at each other across the shadows, the moment taking on overtones of finality.

  Now the questions will come.

  But Brown still had no questions to ask. His cigarette was down to a smoldering roach, but when the gunslinger tapped his poke, Brown shook his head.

  Zoltan shifted restlessly, seemed about to speak, subsided.

  "Will I tell you about it?" the gunslinger asked. "Ordinarily I'm not much of a talker, but . . ."

  "Sometimes talking helps. I'll listen."

  The gunslinger searched for words to begin and found none. "I have to pass water," he said.

  Brown nodded. "Pass it in the corn, please."

  "Sure."

  He went up the stairs and out into the dark. The stars glittered overhead. The wind pulsed. His urine arched out over the powdery cornfield in a wavering stream. The man in black had drawn him here. It wasn't beyond possibility that Brown was the man in black. He might be . . .

  The gunslinger shut these useless and upsetting thoughts away. The only contingency he had not learned how to bear was the possibility of his own madness. He went back inside.

  "Have you decided if I'm an enchantment yet?" Brown asked, amused.

  The gunslinger paused on the tiny landing, startled. Then he came down slowly and sat. "The thought crossed my mind. Are you?"

  "If I am, I don't know it."

  This wasn't a terribly helpful answer, but the gunslinger decided to let it pass. "I started to tell you about Tull."

  "Is it growing?"

  "It's dead," the gunslinger said. "I killed it." He thought of adding: And now I'm going to kill you, if for no other reason than I don't want to have to sleep with one eye open. But had he come to such behavior? If so, why bother to go on at all? Why, if he had become what he pursued?

  Brown said, "I don't want nothing from you, gunslinger, except to still be here when you move on. I won't beg for my life, but that don't mean I don't want it yet awhile longer."

  The gunslinger closed his eyes. His mind whirled.

  "Tell me what you are," he said thickly.

  "Just a man. One who means you no harm. And I'm still willing to listen if you're willing to talk."

  To this the gunslinger made no reply.

  "I guess you won't feel right about it unless I invite you," Brown said, "and so I do. Will you tell me about Tull?"

  The gunslinger was surprised to find that this time the words were there. He began to speak in flat bursts that slowly spread into an even, slightly toneless narrative. He found himself oddly excited. He talked deep into the night. Brown did not interrupt at all. Neither did the bird.

  V

  He'd bought the mule in Pricetown, and when he reached Tull, it was still fresh. The sun had set an hour earlier, but the gunslinger had continued traveling, guided by the town glow in the sky, then by the uncannily clear notes of a honky-tonk piano playing "Hey Jude." The road widened as it took on tributaries. Here and there were overhead sparklights, all of them long dead.

  The forests were long gone now, replaced by the monotonous flat prairie country: endless, desolate fields gone to timothy and low shrubs; eerie, deserted estates guarded by brooding, shadowed mansions where demons undeniably walked; leering, empty shanties where the people had either moved on or had been moved along; an occasional dweller's hovel, given away by a single flickering point of light in the dark, or by sullen, inbred clan-fams toiling silently in the fields by day. Corn was the main crop, but there were beans and also some pokeberries. An occasional scrawny cow stared at him lumpishly from between peeled alder poles. Coaches had passed him four times, twice coming and twice going, nearly empty as they came up on him from behind and bypassed him and his mule, fuller as they headed back toward the forests of the north. Now and then a farmer passed with his feet up on the splashboard of his bucka, careful not to look at the man with the guns.

  It was ugly country. It had showered twice since he had left Pricetown, grudgingly both times. Even the timothy looked yellow and dispirited. Pass-on-by country. He had seen no sign of the man in black. Perhaps he had taken a coach.

  The road made a bend, and beyond it the gunslinger clucked the mule to a stop and looked down at Tull. It was at the floor of a circular, bowl-shaped hollow, a shoddy jewel in a cheap setting. There were a number of lights, most of them clustered around the area of the music. There looked to be four streets, three running at right angles to the coach road, which was the main avenue of the town. Perhaps there would be a cafe. He doubted it, but perhaps. He clucked at the mule.

  More houses sporadically lined the road now,
most of them still deserted. He passed a tiny graveyard with moldy, leaning wooden slabs overgrown and choked by the rank devil-grass. Perhaps five hundred feet further on he passed a chewed sign which said: TULL.

  The paint was flaked almost to the point of illegibility. There was another further on, but the gunslinger was not able to read that one at all.

  A fool's chorus of half-stoned voices was rising in the final protracted lyric of "Hey Jude"--"Naa-naa-naa naa-na-na-na . . . hey, Jude . . ."--as he entered the town proper. It was a dead sound, like the wind in the hollow of a rotted tree. Only the prosaic thump and pound of the honky-tonk piano saved him from seriously wondering if the man in black might not have raised ghosts to inhabit a deserted town. He smiled a little at the thought.

  There were people on the streets, but not many. Three ladies wearing black slacks and identical high-collared blouses passed by on the opposite boardwalk, not looking at him with pointed curiosity. Their faces seemed to swim above their all-but-invisible bodies like pallid balls with eyes. A solemn old man with a straw hat perched firmly on top of his head watched him from the steps of a boarded-up mercantile store. A scrawny tailor with a late customer paused to watch him go by; he held up the lamp in his window for a better look. The gunslinger nodded. Neither the tailor nor his customer nodded back. He could feel their eyes resting heavily upon the low-slung holsters that lay against his hips. A young boy, perhaps thirteen, and a girl who might have been his sissa or his jilly-child crossed the street a block up, pausing imperceptibly. Their footfalls raised little hanging clouds of dust. Here in town most of the streetside lamps worked, but they weren't electric; their isinglass sides were cloudy with congealed oil. Some had been crashed out. There was a livery with a just-hanging-on look to it, probably depending on the coach line for its survival. Three boys were crouched silently around a marble ring drawn in the dust to one side of the barn's gaping maw, smoking cornshuck cigarettes. They made long shadows in the yard. One had a scorpion's tail poked in the band of his hat. Another had a bloated left eye bulging sightlessly from its socket.

 
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