Brown offered his hand and the gunslinger shook it. The dweller nodded to the south. "Walk easy. "
"You know it."
They nodded at each other and then the gunslinger walked away, his body festooned with guns and water. He looked back once. Brown was rooting furiously at his little combed. The crow was perched on the low roof of his dwelling like a gargoyle.
The fire was down, and the stars had begun to pale off. The wind walked restlessly. The gunslinger twitched in his sleep and was still again. He dreamed a thirsty dream. In the darkness the shape of the mountains was invisible. The thoughts of guilt had faded. The desert had baked them out. He found himself thinking more and more about Cort, who had taught him to shoot, instead. Cort had known black from white.
He stirred again and awoke. He blinked at the dead fire with its own shape superimposed over the other, more
geometrical one. He was a romantic, he knew it, and he guarded the knowledge jealously.
That, of course, made him think of Cort again. He didn't know where Cort was. The world had moved on.
The gunslinger shouldered his tote sack and moved on with it.
The Way Station
A nursery rhyme had been playing itself through his mind all day, the maddening kind of thing that will not let go, that stands mockingly outside the apse of the conscious mind and makes faces at the rational being inside. The rhyme was:
The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.
There is joy and also pain
but the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.
The ways of the world all will change and all the ways remain the same
but if you're mad or only sane
the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.
We walk in love but fly in chains
And the planes in Spain fall mainly in the rain.
He knew why the rhyme had occurred to him. There had been the recurring dream of his room in the castle and of his father, who had sung it to him as he lay solemnly in the tiny bed by the window of many colors. She did not sing it at bedtimes because all small boys born to the High Speech must face the dark alone, but she sang to him at nap-times and he could remember the heavy gray rain light that shivered into colors on the counterpane; he could feel the coolness of the room and the heavy warmth of blankets, love for his mother and her red lips, the haunting melody of the little nonsense lyric, and her voice.
Now it came back maddeningly, like prickly heat, chasing its own tail in his mind as he walked. All his water was gone, and he knew he was very likely a dead man. He had never expected it to come to this, and he was sorry. Since noon he had been watching his feet rather than watching the way ahead. Out here even the devil-grass had grown stunted and yellow. The hardpan had disintegrated in places to mere rubble. The mountains were not noticeably clearer, although sixteen days had passed since he had left the hut of the last homesteader, a loony-sane young man on the edge of the desert He had had a raven, the gunslinger remembered, but he couldn't remember the raven's name.
He watched his feet move up and down, listened to the nonsense rhyme sing itself into a pitiful garble in his mind, and wondered when he would fall down for the first time. He didn't want to fall, even though there was no one to see him. It was a matter of pride. A gunslinger knows pride - that invisible bone that keeps the neck stiff.
He stopped and looked up suddenly. It made his head buzz and for a moment his whole body seemed to float The mountains dreamed against the far horizon. But there was something else up ahead, something much closer. Perhaps only five miles away. He squinted at it, but his eyes were sandblasted and going glare blind. He shook his head and began to walk again. The rhyme circled and buzzed. About an hour later he fell down and skinned his hands. He looked at the tiny beads of blood on his flaked skin with unbelief. The blood looked no thinner; it looked mutely viable. It seemed almost as smug as the desert He dashed the drops away, haling them blindly. Smug? Why not? The blood was not thirsty. The blood was being served. The blood was being made sacrifice unto. Blood sacrifice. All the blood needed to do was run... and run.., and run.
He looked at the splotches that had landed on the hard-pan and watched as they were sucked up with uncanny suddenness. How do you like that, blood? How does that grab you?
0 Jesus, you're far gone.
He got up, holding his hands to his chest and the thing he had seen earlier was almost in front of him, startling a cry out of him - a dust-choked crow-croak. It was a building. No; two buildings, surrounded by a fallen rail fence. The wood seemed old, fragile to the point of elvishness; it was wood being transmogrified into sand. One of the buildings had been a stable - the shape was clear and unmistakable. The other was a house, or an inn. A way station for the coach line. The tottering sand-house (the wind had crusted the wood with grit until it looked like a sand castle that the sun had beat upon at low tide and hardened to a temporary abode) cast a thin line of shadow, and someone sat in the shadow, leaning against the building. And the building seemed to lean with the burden of his weight
Him, then. At last The man in black.
The gunslinger stood with his hands to his chest, unaware of his declamatory posture, and gawped. And instead of the tremendous winging excitement he had expected (or perhaps fear, or awe), there was nothing but the dim, atavistic guilt for the sudden, raging hate of his own blood moments earlier and the endless ring-a-rosy of the childhood song:
... the rain in Spain...
He moved forward, drawing one gun.
... falls mainly on the plain.
He came the last quarter mile at the run, not trying to hide himself; there was nothing to hide behind. His short shadow raced him. He was not aware that his face had become a gray and grinning death mask of exhaustion; he was aware of nothing but the figure in the shadow. It did not occur to him until later that the figure might even have been dead.
He kicked through one of the leaning fence rails (it broke in two without a sound, almost apologetically) and lunged across the dazzled and silent stable yard, bringing the gun up.
"You're covered! You're covered! You're - "
The figure moved restlessly and stood up. The gunslinger thought: My God, he is worn away to nothing, what's happened to him? Because the man in black had shrunk two full feet and his hair had gone white.
He paused, struck dumb, his head buzzing tunelessly. His heart was racing at a lunatic rate and he thought, I'm dying right here - He sucked the white-hot air into his lungs and hung his head for a moment When he raised it again, he saw it wasn't the man in black but a small boy with sun-bleached hair, regarding him with eyes that did not even seem interested. The gunslinger stared at him blankly and then shook his head in negation. But the boy survived his refusal to believe; he was still there, wearing blue jeans with a patch on one knee and a plain brown shirt of rough weave.
The gunslinger shook his head again and started for the stable with his head lowered, gun still in hand. He couldn't think yet His head was filled with motes and there was a huge, thrumming ache building in it
The inside of the stable was silent and dark and exploding with heat The gunslinger stared around himself with huge, floating walleyes. He made a drunken about-face and saw the boy standing in the ruined doorway, staring at him. A huge lancet of pain slipped dreamily into his head, cutting from temple to temple, dividing his brain like an orange. He reholstered his gun, swayed, put out his hands as if to ward off phantoms, and fell over on his face.
When he woke up, he was on his back, and there was a pile of light, odorless hay beneath his head. The boy had not been able to move him, but he had made him reasonably comfortable. And he was cool. He looked down at himself and saw that his shirt was dark with moisture. He licked at his face and tasted water. He blinked at it
The boy was hunkered down beside him. When he saw the gunslinger's eyes were open, he reached behind him and gave the gunslinger a dented tin can filled with water. He grasped it with trembling hands and allowed himself to drink a little - just a little. When that was down and sitting in his belly, he drank a little more. Then he spilled the rest over his face and made shocked blowing noises. The boy's pretty lips curved in a solemn little smile.
"Want something to eat?"
"Not yet," the gunslinger said. There was still a sick ache in his head from the sunstroke, and the water sat uneasily in his stomach, as if it did not know where to go. "Who are you?"
"My name is John Chambers. You can call me Jake."
The gunslinger sat up, and the sick ache became hard and immediate. He leaned forward and lost a brief struggle with his stomach.
"There's more," Jake said. He took the can and walked toward the rear of the stable. He paused and smiled back at the gunslinger uncertainly. The gunslinger nodded at him and then put his head down and propped it with his hands. The boy was well-made, handsome, perhaps nine. There had been a shadow on his face, but there were shadows on all faces now.
A strange, thumping hum began at the rear of the stable, and the gunslinger raised his head alertly, hands going to gunbutts. The sound lasted for perhaps fifteen seconds and then quit. The boy came back with the can - filled now.
The gunslinger drank sparingly again, and this time it was a little better. The ache in his head was fading.
"I didn't know what to do with you when you fell down," Jake said. "For a couple of seconds there, I thought you were going to shoot me."
"I thought you were somebody else."
The gunslinger looked up sharply. "What priest?"
The boy looked at him, frowning lightly. "The priest He camped in the yard. I was in the house over there. I didn't like him, so I didn't come out He came in the night and went on the next day. I would have hidden from you, but I was sleepin' when you came." He looked darkly over the gunslinger's head. "I don't like people. They f*ck me up."
"What did the priest look like?"
The boy shrugged. "Like a priest. He was wearing black things."
"Like a hood and a cassock?"
"What's a cassock?"
The boy nodded. "A robe and a hood."
The gunslinger leaned forward, and something in his face made the boy recoil a little. "How long ago?"
"I - I - "
Patiently, the gunslinger said, "I'm not going to hurt you."
"I don't know. I can't remember time. Every day is the same."
For the first time the gunslinger wondered consciously how the boy had come to this place, with dry and man killing leagues of desert all around it. But he would not make it his concern; not yet, at least. "Make a guess. Long ago?"
"No. Not long. I haven't been here long."
The fire lit in him again. He grabbed the can and drank from it with hands that trembled the smallest bit. A snatch of the cradle song recurred, but this time, instead of his mother's face, he saw the scarred face of Alice, who had been his woman in the now-defunct town of Tull. "How long? A week? Two? three?"
The boy looked at him distractedly. "Yes."
"A week. Or two. I didn't come out. He didn't even drink. I thought he might be the ghost of a priest I was scared. I've been scared almost all the time." His face quivered like crystal on the edge of the ultimate, destructive high note. "He didn't even build a fire. He just sat there. I don't even know if he went to sleep."
Close! He was closer than he had ever been. In spite of his extreme dehydration, his hands felt faintly moist; greasy.
"There's some dried meat," the boy said.
"All right" The gunslinger nodded. "Good."
The boy got up to fetch it, his knees popping slightly. He made a fine straight figure. The desert had not yet sapped him. His arms were thin, but the skin, although tanned, had not dried and cracked. He's got juice, the gunslinger thought He drank from the can again. He's got juice and he didn't come from this place.
Jake came back with a pile of dried jerky on what looked like a sun-scoured breadboard. The meat was tough, stringy, and salty enough to make the cankered lining of the gunslinger's mouth sing. He ate and drank until he felt logy, and then settled back. The boy ate only a little.
The gunslinger regarded him steadily, and the boy looked back at him. "Where did you come from, Jake?" He asked finally.
"I don't know." The boy frowned. "I did know. I knew when I came here, but it's all fuzzy now, like a bad dream when you wake up. I have lots of bad dreams."
"Did somebody bring you?"
"No," the boy said. "I was just here."
"You're not making any sense," the gunslinger said flatly.
Quite suddenly the boy seemed on the verge of tears. "I can't help it. I was just here. And now you'll go away and I'll starve because you ate up almost all my food. I didn't ask to be here. I don't like it. It's spooky."
"Don't feel so sorry for yourself. Make do."
"I didn't ask to be here," the boy repeated bewildered defiance.
The gunslinger ate another piece of the meat, chewing the salt out of it before swallowing. The boy had become part of it, and the gunslinger was convinced he told the truth - he had not asked for it. It was too bad. He himself ... he had asked for it But he had not asked for the game to become this dirty. He had not asked to be allowed to turn his guns on the unarmed populace of Tull; had not asked to shoot Allie, her face marked by that strange, shining scar; had not asked to be faced with a choice between the obsession of his duty and his quest and criminal amorality. The man in black had begun to pull bad strings in his desperation, if it was the man in black who had pulled this par ticular string. It was not fair to ring in innocent bystanders and make them speak lines they didn't understand on a strange stage. Allie, he thought Allie at least had been into the world in her own self-illusory way. But this boy... this God-damned boy....
"Tell me what you can remember," he told Jake.
"It's only a little. It doesn't seem to make any sense any more."
"Tell me. Maybe I can pick up the sense.
"There was a place... the one before this one. A high place with lots of rooms and a patio where you could look at tall buildings and water. There was a statue that stood in the water."
"A statue in the water?"
"Yes. A lady with a crown and a torch."
"Are you making this up?"
"I guess I must be," the boy said hopelessly. "There were things to ride in on the streets. Big ones and little ones. Yellow ones. A lot of yellow ones. I walked to school. There were cement paths beside the streets. Windows to look in and more statues wearing clothes. The statues sold the clothes. I know it sounds crazy, but the statues sold the clothes."