The gunslinger, p.6
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       The Gunslinger, p.6

         Part #1 of The Dark Tower series by Stephen King
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  Soobie began to drag her bucket sullenly toward the shack appended to the barn.

  "You meant my mule," the gunslinger said.

  "Yes, sai. Ain't seen no mule in quite a time, specially one that looks as threaded as your'n--two eyes, four legs . . ." His face squinched together alarmingly in an expression meant to convey either extreme pain or the notion that a joke had been made. The gunslinger assumed it was the latter, although he had little or no sense of humor himself.

  "Time was they used to grow up wild for want of 'em," Kennerly continued, "but the world has moved on. Ain't seen nothin' but a few mutie oxen and the coach horses and--Soobie, I'll whale you, 'fore God!"

  "I don't bite," the gunslinger said pleasantly.

  Kennerly cringed and grinned. The gunslinger saw the murder in his eyes quite clearly, and although he did not fear it, he marked it as a man might mark a page in a book, one that contained potentially valuable instructions. "It ain't you. Gods, no, it ain't you." He grinned loosely. "She just naturally gawky. She got a devil. She wild." His eyes darkened. "It's coming to Last Times, mister. You know how it says in the Book. Children won't obey their parents, and a plague'll be visited on the multitudes. You only have to listen to the preacher-woman to know it."

  The gunslinger nodded, then pointed southeast. "What's out there?"

  Kennerly grinned again, showing gums and a few sociable yellow teeth. "Dwellers. Weed. Desert. What else?" He cackled, and his eyes measured the gunslinger coldly.

  "How big is the desert?"

  "Big." Kennerly endeavored to look serious, as if answering a serious question. "Maybe a thousand wheels. Maybe two thousand. I can't tell you, mister. There's nothin' out there but devil-grass and maybe demons. Heard there was a speakin-ring sommers on the far side, but that 'us prolly a lie. That's the way the other fella went. The one who fixed up Norty when he was sick."

  "Sick? I heard he was dead."

  Kennerly kept grinning. "Well, well. Maybe. But we're growed-up men, ain't we?"

  "But you believe in demons."

  Kennerly looked affronted. "That's a lot different. Preacher-woman says . . ."

  He blathered and palavered ever onward. The gunslinger took off his hat and wiped his forehead. The sun was hot, beating steadily. Kennerly seemed not to notice. Kennerly had a lot to say, none of it sensible. In the thin shadow by the livery, the baby girl was gravely smearing dirt on her face.

  The gunslinger finally grew impatient and cut the man off in mid-spate. "You don't know what's after the desert?"

  Kennerly shrugged. "Some might. The coach ran through part of it fifty years ago. My pap said so. He used to say 'twas mountains. Others say an ocean . . . a green ocean with monsters. And some say that's where the world ends. That there ain't nothing but lights that'll drive a man blind and the face of God with his mouth open to eat them up."

  "Drivel," the gunslinger said shortly.

  "Sure it is," Kennerly cried happily. He cringed again, hating, fearing, wanting to please.

  "You see my mule is looked after." He flicked Kennerly another coin, which Kennerly caught on the fly. The gunslinger thought of the way a dog will catch a ball.

  "Surely. You stayin' a little?"

  "I guess I might. There'll be water--"

  "--if God wills it! Sure, sure!" Kennerly laughed unhappily, and his eyes went on wanting the gunslinger stretched out dead at his feet. "That Allie's pretty nice when she wants to be, ain't she?" The hostler made a loose circle with his left fist and began poking his right finger rapidly in and out of it.

  "Did you say something?" the gunslinger asked remotely.

  Sudden terror dawned in Kennerly's eyes, like twin moons coming over the horizon. He put his hands behind his back like a naughty child caught with the jamjar. "No, sai, not a word. And I'm right sorry if I did." He caught sight of Soobie leaning out a window and whirled on her. "I'll whale you now, you little slut-whore! 'Fore God! I'll--"

  The gunslinger walked away, aware that Kennerly had turned to watch him, aware of the fact that he could whirl and catch the hostler with some true and untinctured emotion distilled on his face. Why bother? It was hot, and he knew what the emotion would be: just hate. Hate of the outsider. He'd gotten all the man had to offer. The only sure thing about the desert was its size. The only sure thing about the town was that it wasn't all played out here. Not yet.


  He and Allie were in bed when Sheb kicked the door open and came in with the knife.

  It had been four days, and they had gone by in a blinking haze. He ate. He slept. He had sex with Allie. He found that she played the fiddle and he made her play it for him. She sat by the window in the milky light of daybreak, only a profile, and played something haltingly that might have been good if she'd had some training. He felt a growing (but strangely absentminded) affection for her and thought this might be the trap the man in black had left behind. He walked out sometimes. He thought very little about everything.

  He didn't hear the little piano player come up--his reflexes had sunk. That didn't seem to matter either, although it would have frightened him badly in another time and place.

  Allie was naked, the sheet below her breasts, and they were preparing to make love.

  "Please," she was saying. "Like before, I want that, I want--"

  The door crashed open and the piano player made his ridiculous, knock-kneed run for the sun. Allie did not scream, although Sheb held an eight-inch carving knife in his hand. He was making a noise, an inarticulate blabbering. He sounded like a man being drowned in a bucket of mud. Spittle flew. He brought the knife down with both hands, and the gunslinger caught his wrists and turned them. The knife went flying. Sheb made a high screeching noise, like a rusty screen door. His hands fluttered in marionette movements, both wrists broken. The wind gritted against the window. Allie's looking glass on the wall, faintly clouded and distorted, reflected the room.

  "She was mine!" He wept. "She was mine first! Mine!"

  Allie looked at him and got out of bed. She put on a wrapper, and the gunslinger felt a moment of empathy for a man who must be seeing himself coming out on the far end of what he once had. He was just a little man. And the gunslinger suddenly knew where he had seen him before. Known him before.

  "It was for you," Sheb sobbed. "It was only for you, Allie. It was you first and it was all for you. I--ah, oh God, dear God . . ." The words dissolved into a paroxysm of unintelligibilities, finally to tears. He rocked back and forth holding his broken wrists to his belly.

  "Shhh. Shhh. Let me see." She knelt beside him. "Broken. Sheb, you ass. How will you make your living now? Didn't you know you were never strong?" She helped him to his feet. He tried to hold his hands to his face, but they would not obey, and he wept nakedly. "Come on over to the table and let me see what I can do."

  She led him to the table and set his wrists with slats of kindling from the fire box. He wept weakly and without volition.

  "Mejis," the gunslinger said, and the little piano player looked around, eyes wide. The gunslinger nodded, amiably enough now that Sheb was no longer trying to stick a knife in his lights. "Mejis," he said again. "On the Clean Sea."

  "What about it?"

  "You were there, weren't you? Many and many-a, as they did say."

  "What if I was? I don't remember you."

  "But you remember the girl, don't you? The girl named Susan? And Reap night?" His voice took on an edge. "Were you there for the bonfire?"

  The little man's lips trembled. They were covered with spit. His eyes said he knew the truth: he was closer to dead now than when he'd come bursting in with a knife in his hand.

  "Get out of here," the gunslinger said.

  Understanding dawned in Sheb's eyes. "But you was just a boy! One of them three boys! You come to count stock, and Eldred Jonas was there, the Coffin Hunter, and--"

  "Get out while you still can," the gunslinger said, and Sheb went, holding his broken wrists before him.

p; She came back to the bed. "What was that about?"

  "Never mind," he said.

  "All right--then where were we?"

  "Nowhere." He rolled on his side, away from her.

  She said patiently, "You knew about him and me. He did what he could, which wasn't much, and I took what I could, because I had to. There's nothing to be done. What else is there?" She touched his shoulder. "Except I'm glad that you are so strong."

  "Not now," he said.

  "Who was she?" And then, answering her own question: "A girl you loved."

  "Leave it, Allie."

  "I can make you strong--"

  "No," he said. "You can't do that."


  The next night the bar was closed. It was whatever passed for the Sabbath in Tull. The gunslinger went to the tiny, leaning church by the graveyard while Allie washed tables with strong disinfectant and rinsed kerosene lamp chimneys in soapy water.

  An odd purple dusk had fallen, and the church, lit from the inside, looked almost like a blast furnace from the road.

  "I don't go," Allie had said shortly. "The woman who preaches has poison religion. Let the respectable ones go."

  He stood in the vestibule, hidden in a shadow, looking in. The pews were gone and the congregation stood (he saw Kennerly and his brood; Castner, owner of the town's scrawny dry-goods emporium and his slat-sided wife; a few barflies; a few "town" women he had never seen before; and, surprisingly, Sheb). They were singing a hymn raggedly, a cappella. He looked curiously at the mountainous woman at the pulpit. Allie had said: "She lives alone, hardly ever sees anybody. Only comes out on Sunday to serve up the hellfire. Her name is Sylvia Pittston. She's crazy, but she's got the hoodoo on them. They like it that way. It suits them."

  No description could take the measure of the woman. Breasts like earthworks. A huge pillar of a neck overtopped by a pasty white moon of a face, in which blinked eyes so large and so dark that they seemed to be bottomless tarns. Her hair was a beautiful rich brown and it was piled atop her head in a haphazard sprawl, held by a hairpin almost big enough to be a meat skewer. She wore a dress that seemed to be made of burlap. The arms that held the hymnal were slabs. Her skin was creamy, unmarked, lovely. He thought that she must top three hundred pounds. He felt a sudden red lust for her that made him feel shaky, and he turned his head and looked away.

  "Shall we gather at the river,

  The beautiful, the beautiful,

  The riiiiver,

  Shall we gather at the river,

  That flows by the kingdom of God."

  The last note of the last chorus faded off, and there was a moment of shuffling and coughing.

  She waited. When they were settled, she spread her hands over them, as if in benediction. It was an evocative gesture.

  "My dear little brothers and sisters in Christ."

  It was a haunting line. For a moment the gunslinger felt mixed feelings of nostalgia and fear, stitched in with an eerie feeling of deja vu, and he thought: I dreamed this. Or I was here before. If so, when? Not Mejis. No, not there. He shook the feeling off. The audience--perhaps twenty-five all told--had become dead silent. Every eye touched the preacher-woman.

  "The subject of our meditation tonight is The Interloper." Her voice was sweet, melodious, the speaking voice of a well-trained contralto.

  A little rustle ran through the audience.

  "I feel," Sylvia Pittston said reflectively, "that I know almost everyone in the Good Book personally. In the last five years I have worn out three of 'em, precious though any book be in this ill world, and uncountable numbers before that. I love the story, and I love the players in that story. I have walked arm in arm in the lion's den with Daniel. I stood with David when he was tempted by Bathsheba as she bathed at the pool. I have been in the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego. I slew two thousand with Samson when he swung the jawbone, and was blinded with St. Paul on the road to Damascus. I wept with Mary at Golgotha."

  A soft, shurring sigh in the audience.

  "I have known and loved them. There is only one"--she held up a finger--"only one player in the greatest of all dramas that I do not know.

  "Only one who stands outside with his face in the shadow.

  "Only one who makes my body tremble and my spirit quail.

  "I fear him.

  "I don't know his mind and I fear him.

  "I fear The Interloper."

  Another sigh. One of the women had put a hand over her mouth as if to stop a sound and was rocking, rocking.

  "The Interloper who came to Eve as a snake on its belly in the dust, grinning and writhing. The Interloper who walked among the Children of Israel while Moses was up on the Mount, who whispered to them to make a golden idol, a golden calf, and to worship it with foulness and fornication."

  Moans, nods.

  "The Interloper!

  "He stood on the balcony with Jezebel and watched as King Ahaz fell screaming to his death, and he and she grinned as the dogs gathered and lapped up his blood. Oh, my little brothers and sisters, watch thou for The Interloper."

  "Yes, O Jesus--" This was the man the gunslinger had first noticed coming into town, the one with the straw hat.

  "He's always been there, my brothers and sisters. But I don't know his mind. And you don't know his mind. Who could understand the awful darkness that swirls there, the pride and the titanic blasphemy, the unholy glee? And the madness! The gibbering madness that walks and crawls and wriggles through men's most awful wants and desires?"

  "O Jesus Savior--"

  "It was him who took our Lord up on the mountain--"


  "It was him that tempted him and shewed him all the world and the world's pleasures--"


  "It's him that will return when Last Times come on the world . . . and they are coming, my brothers and sisters, can't you feel they are?"


  Rocking and sobbing, the congregation became a sea; the woman seemed to point at all of them and none of them.

  "It's him that will come as the Antichrist, a crimson king with bloody eyes, to lead men into the flaming bowels of perdition, to the bloody end of wickedness, as Star Wormword hangs blazing in the sky, as gall gnaws at the vitals of the children, as women's wombs give forth monstrosities, as the works of men's hands turn to blood--"


  "Ah, God--"


  A woman fell on the floor, her legs crashing up and down against the wood. One of her shoes flew off.

  "It's him that stands behind every fleshly pleasure . . . him who made the machines with LaMerk stamped on them, him! The Interloper!"

  LaMerk, the gunslinger thought. Or maybe she said LeMark. The word had some vague resonance for him, but nothing he could put his finger on. Nonetheless, he filed it away in his memory, which was capacious.

  "Yes, Lord!" they were screaming.

  A man fell on his knees, holding his head and braying.

  "When you take a drink, who holds the bottle?"

  "The Interloper!"

  "When you sit down to a faro or a Watch Me table, who turns the cards?"

  "The Interloper!"

  "When you riot in the flesh of another's body, when you pollute yourself with your solitary hand, to whom do you sell your soul?"



  "Oh, Jesus . . . Oh--"


  "Aw . . . Aw . . . Aw . . ."

  "And who is he?" she cried. But calm within, he could sense the calmness, the mastery, the control and domination. He thought suddenly, with terror and absolute surety, that the man who called himself Walter had left a demon in her. She was haunted. He felt the hot ripple of sexual desire again through his fear, and thought this was somehow like the word the man in black had left in Allie's mind like a loaded trap.

  The man who was holding his head crashed and blundered forward.

  "I'm in hell!" he screamed
up at her. His face twisted and writhed as if snakes crawled beneath his skin. "I done fornications! I done gambling! I done weed! I done sins! I--" But his voice rose skyward in a dreadful, hysterical wail that drowned articulation. He held his head as if it would burst like an overripe cantaloupe at any moment.

  The audience stilled as if a cue had been given, frozen in their half-erotic poses of ecstasy.

  Sylvia Pittston reached down and grasped his head. The man's cry ceased as her fingers, strong and white, unblemished and gentle, worked through his hair. He looked up at her dumbly.

  "Who was with you in sin?" she asked. Her eyes looked into his, deep enough, gentle enough, cold enough to drown in.

  "The . . . The Interloper."

  "Called who?"

  "Called Lord High Satan." Raw, oozing whisper.

  "Will you renounce?"

  Eagerly: "Yes! Yes! Oh, my Jesus Savior!"

  She rocked his head; he stared at her with the blank, shiny eyes of the zealot. "If he walked through that door"--she hammered a finger at the vestibule shadows where the gunslinger stood--"would you renounce him to his face?"

  "On my mother's name!"

  "Do you believe in the eternal love of Jesus?"

  He began to weep. "You're fucking-A I do--"

  "He forgives you that, Jonson."

  "Praise God," Jonson said, still weeping.

  "I know he forgives you just as I know he will cast out the unrepentant from his palaces and into the place of burning darkness beyond the end of End-World."

  "Praise God." The congregation, drained, spoke it solemnly.

  "Just as I know this Interloper, this Satan, this Lord of Flies and Serpents, will be cast down and crushed . . . will you crush him if you see him, Jonson?"

  "Yes and praise God!" Jonson wept. "Wit' bote feet!"

  "Will you crush him if you see him, brothers and sisters?"

  "Yess . . ." Sated.

  "If you see him sashaying down Main Street tomorrow?"

  "Praise God . . ."

  The gunslinger faded back out the door and headed for town. The smell of the desert was clear in the air. Almost time to move on.



  In bed again.

  "She won't see you," Allie said. She sounded frightened. "She doesn't see anybody. She only comes out on Sunday evenings to scare the hell out of everybody."

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