Metal screamed beneath him and he stepped past it unhurriedly, shifting his weight, not thinking of the drop, or of how far they had come, or of how far was left. Not thinking that the boy was expendable and that the sale of his honor was now, at last, nearly negotiated.
"Three ties out here," the boy said coolly. "I'm going to jump. Here! Here!"
The gunslinger saw him silhouetted for a moment against the daylight, an awkward, hunched spread-eagle. He landed and the whole edifice swayed drunkenly. Metal beneath them protested and something far below fell, first with a crash, then with the sound of deep water.
"Are you over?" The gunslinger asked.
"Yes," the boy said remotely, "but it's very rotten. I don't think it will hold you. Me, but not you. Go back now. Go back now and leave me alone."
His voice was hysterical, cold but hysterical.
The gunslinger stepped over the break. One large step did it. The boy was shuddering helplessly. "Go back. I don't want you to kill me."
"For Christ's sake, walk," the gunslinger said roughly. ''It's going to fall down."
The boy walked drunkenly now, his hands held out shudderingly before him, fingers splayed.
They went up.
Yes, it was much more rotten now. There were frequent breaks of one, two, even three ties, and the gunslinger expected again and again that they would find the long empty space between rails that would either force them back or make them walk on the rails themselves, balanced giddily over the chasm.
He kept his eyes fixed on the daylight.
The glow had taken on a color - blue - and as it came closer it became softer, paling the radiance of the phosphor as it mixed with it. Fifty yards or a hundred? He could not say.
They walked, and now he looked at his feet, crossing from tie to tie. When he looked again, the glow had grown to a hole, and it was not a light but a way out. They were almost there.
Thirty yards, yes. Ninety short feet. It could be done. Perhaps they would have the man in black yet. Perhaps, in the bright sunlight the evil flowers in his mind would shrivel and anything would be possible.
The sunlight was blocked out.
He looked up, startled, staring, and saw a silhouette filling the light, eating it up, allowing only chinks of mocking blue around the outline of shoulders, the fork of crotch.
The man in black's voice echoed to them, amplified in this natural throat of stone, the sarcasm taking on mighty overtones. Blindly, the gunslinger sought the jawbone, but it was gone, lost somewhere, used up.
He laughed above them and the sound crashed around them, reverberating like surf in a filling cave. The boy screamed and tottered, a windmill again, arms gyrating through the scant air.
Metal ripped and sloughed beneath them; the rails canted through a slow and dreamy twisting. The boy plunged, and one hand flew up like a gull in the darkness, up, up, and then he hung over the pit; he dangled there, his dark eyes staring up at the gunslinger in final blind lost knowledge.
Booming, racketing: "Come now, gunslinger. Or catch me never!"
All chips on the table. Every card up but one. The boy dangled, a living Tarot card, the hanged man, the Phoenician sailor, innocent lost and barely above the wave of a stygian sea.
Wait then, wait awhile.
"Do I go?" The voice so loud, he makes it hard to think, the power to cloud men's minds. . . .
Don't make it bad, take a sad song and make it better. . . . "Help me."
The trestle had begun to twist further, screaming, pulling loose from itself, giving - "Then I shall leave you."
His legs carried him in a sudden leap through the entropy that held him, above the dangling boy, into a skidding, plunging rush toward the light that offered, the Tower frozen on the retina of his mind's eye in a black frieze, suddenly silence, the silhouette gone, even the beat of his heart gone as the trestle settled further, beginning its final slow dance to the depths, tearing loose, his hand finding the rocky, lighted lip of damnation; and behind him, in the dreadful silence, the boy spoke from too far beneath him.
"Go then. There are other worlds than these."
It tore away from him, the whole weight of it; and as he pulled himself up and through to the light and the breeze and the reality of a new karma (we all shine on), he twisted his head back, for a moment in his agony striving to be Janus- but there was nothing, only plummeting silence, for the boy made no sound.
Then he was up, pulling his legs through onto the rocky escarpment that looked toward a grassy plain at the descending foot, toward where the man in black stood spread-legged, with arms crossed.
The gunslinger stood drunkenly, pallid as a ghost, eyes huge and swimming beneath his forehead, shirt smeared with the white dust of his final, lunging crawl. It came to him that he would always flee murder. It came to him that there would be further degradations of the spirit ahead that might make this one seem infinitesimal, and yet he would still flee it, down corridors and through cities, from bed to bed; he would flee the boy's face and try to bury it in cunts or even in further destruction, only to enter one final room and find it looking at him over a candle flame. He had become the boy; the boy had become him. He was a wurderlak, lycanthropus of his own making, and in deep dreams he would become the boy and speak strange tongues.
This is death. Is it? Is it?
He walked slowly, drunkenly down the rocky hill toward where the man in black waited. Here the tracks had been worn away, under the sun of reason, and it was as if they had never been.
The man in black pushed his hood away with the backs of both hands, laughing.
"So!" he cried. "Not an end, but the end of the beginning, eh? You progress, gunslinger! You progress! Oh, how I admire you!"
The gunslinger drew with blinding speed and fired twelve times. The gun-flashes dimmed the sun itself, and the pounding of the explosions slammed back from the rock-faced escarpments behind them.
"Now," the man in black said, laughing. "Oh, now. We make great magic together, you and I. You kill me no more than you kill yourself."
He withdrew, walking backwards, facing the gunslinger, grinning. "Come. Come. Come."
The gunslinger followed him in broken boots to the place of counseling.
The Gunslinger And The Darkman
The man in black led him to an ancient killing ground to make palaver. The gunslinger knew it immediately; a Golgotha, place-of-the-skull. And bleached skulls stared blandly up at them - cattle, coyotes, deer, rabbits. Here the alabaster xylophone of a hen pheasant killed as she fed; there the tiny, delicate bones of a mole, perhaps killed for pleasure by a wild dog.
The Golgotha was a bowl indented into the descending slope of the mountain, and below, in easier altitudes, the gunslinger could see Joshua trees and scrub firs. The sky overhead was a softer blue than he had seen for a twelve-month, and there was an indefinable something that spoke of the sea in the not-too-great distance.
Jam in the West, Cuthbert, he thought wonderingly.
And of course in each skull, in each rondure of vacated eye, he saw the boy's face.
The man in black sat on an ancient ironwood log. His boots were powdered white with dust and the uneasy bone-meal of this place. He had put his hood up again, but the gunslinger could see the square shape of his chin clearly, and the shading of his jaw.
The shadowed lips twitched in a smile. "Gather wood, gunslinger. This side of the mountains is gentle, but at this altitude, the cold still may put a knife in one's belly. And this is a place of death, eh?"
"I'll kill you," the gunslinger said.
"No you won't You can't. But you can gather wood to remember your Isaac."
The gunslinger had no understanding of the reference. He went wordlessly and gathered wood like a common cook's boy. The pickings were slim. There was no devil-grass on this side and the ironwood would not burn. It had become stone. He returned finally with a large armload, powdered and dusted with disintegrated bone, as if dipped in flour. The sun had sunk beyond the highest Joshua trees and had taken on a reddish glow and peered at them with baleful indifference through the black, tortured branches.
"Excellent," the man in black said. "How exceptional you are! How methodical! I salute you!" He giggled, and the gunslinger dropped the wood at his feet with a crash that ballooned up bone dust.
The man in black did not start or jump; he merely began laying the fire. The gunslinger watched, fascinated, as the idiogram (fresh, this time) took shape. When it was finished, it resembled a small and complex double chim ney about two feet high. The man in black lifted his hand skyward, shaking back the voluminous sleeve from a tapered, handsome hand, and brought it down rapidly, index and pinky fingers forked out in the traditional sign of the evil eye. There was a blue flash of flame, and their fire was lighted.
"I have matches," the man in black said jovially, "but I thought you might enjoy the magic. For a pretty, gunslinger. Now cook our dinner."
The folds of his robe shivered, and the plucked and gutted carcass of a plump rabbit fell on the dirt.
The gunslinger spitted the rabbit wordlessly and roasted it. A savory smell drifted up as the sun went down.
Purple shadows drifted hungrily over the bowl where the man in black had chosen to finally face him. The gunslinger felt hunger begin to rumble endlessly in his belly as the rabbit browned; but when the meat was cooked and its juices sealed in, he handed the entire skewer wordlessly to the man in black, rummaged in his own nearly flat knapsack, and withdrew the last of his jerky. It was salty, painful to his mouth, and tasted like tears.
"That's a worthless gesture," the man in black said, managing to sound angry and amused at the same time.
"Nevertheless," the gunslinger said. There were tiny sores in his mouth, the result of vitamin deprivation, and the salt taste made him grin bitterly.
"Are you afraid of enchanted meat?"
The man in black slipped his hood back.
The gunslinger looked at him silently. In a way, the face of the man in black was an uneasy disappointment. It was handsome and regular, with none of the marks and twists which indicate a person who has been through awesome times and who has been privy to great and unknown secrets. His hair was black and of a ragged, matted length. His forehead was high, his eyes dark and brilliant. His nose was nondescript. The lips were full and sensual. His complexion was pallid, as was the gunslinger's own.''
He said finally, "I expected an older man.
"Not necessary. I am nearly immortal. I could have taken a face that you more expected, of course, but I elected to show you the one I was - ah - born with. See, gunslinger, the sunset."
The sun had departed already, and the western sky was filled with a sullen furnace light.
"You won't see another sunrise for what may seem a very long time," the man in black said softly.
The gunslinger remembered the pit under the mountains and then looked at the sky, where the constellations sprawled in clockspring profusion.
"It doesn't matter," he said softly, "now."
The man in black shuffled the cards with flying, merging rapidity. The deck was huge, the design on the backs of the cards convoluted. "These are tarot cards," the man in black was saying, "a mixture of the standard deck and a selection of my own development Watch closely gunslinger."
"I'm going to tell your future, Roland. Seven cards must be turned, one at a time, and placed in conjunction with the others. I've not done this for over three hundred years. And I suspect I've never read one quite like yours." The mocking note was creeping in again, like a Kuvian night-soldier with a killing knife gripped in one hand. "You are the world's last adventurer. The last crusader. How that must please you, Roland! Yet you have no idea how close you stand to the Tower now, how close in time. Worlds turn about your head."
"Read my fortune then," he said harshly.
The first card was turned.
"The Hanged Man," the man in black said. The darkness had given him back his hood. "Yet here, in conjunction with nothing else, it signifies strength and not death. You, gunslinger, are the Hanged Man, plodding ever onward toward your goal over all the pits of Hades. You have already dropped one co-traveler into the pit, have you not?"
He turned the second card. "The Sailor. Note the clear brow, the hairless cheeks, the wounded eyes. He drowns, gunslinger, and no one throws out the line. The boy Jake."
The gunslinger winced, said nothing.
The third card was turned. A baboon stood grinningly astride a young man's shoulder. The young man's face was turned up, a grimace of stylized dread and horror on his features. Looking more closely, the gunslinger saw the ba boon held a whip.
"The Prisoner," the man in black said. The fire cast uneasy, flickering shadows over the face of the ridden man, making it seem to move and writhe in wordless terror. The gunslinger flicked his eyes away.
"A trifle upsetting, isn't he?" The man in black said, and seemed on the verge of sniggering.
He turned the fourth card. A woman with a shawl over her head sat spinning at a wheel. To the gunslinger's dazed eyes, she appeared to be smiling craftily and sobbing at the same time.
"The Lady of Shadows," the man in black remarked. "Does she look two-faced to you, gunslinger? She is. A veritable Janus."
"Why are you showing me these?"
"Don't ask!" The man in black said sharply, yet he smiled. "Don't ask. Merely watch. Consider this only pointless ritual if it eases you and cools you to do so. Like church."
He tittered and turned the fifth card.
A grinning reaper clutched a scythe with bony fingers. "
"Death," the man in black said simply. "Yet not for you.
The sixth card.
The gunslinger looked at it and felt a strange, crawling anticipation in his guts. The feeling was mixed with horror and joy, and the whole of the emotion was unnamable. It made him feel like throwing up and dancing at the same time.
"The Tower," the man in black said softly.
The gunslinger's card occupied the center of the pattern; each of the following four stood at one corner, like satellites circling a star.
"Where does that one go?" The gunslinger asked.
The man in black placed the Tower over the Hanged Man, covering it completely.
"What does that mean?" The gunslinger asked. The man in black did not answer.
"What does that mean?" He asked raggedly. The man in black did not answer.
"God damn you!" No answer.