The Gunslinger

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.

Cuthbert came up behind them and stuck his tongue out at Cort, safely on his blind side. Roland did not smile, but nodded to him.

"Go in now," Cort said, taking the hawk. He turned and pointed at Cuthbert. "But remember your reflection, maggot. And your fast. Tonight and tomorrow morning."

"Yes," Cuthbert said, stiltedly formal now. "Thank you for this instructive day."

"You learn," Cort said, "but your tongue has a bad habit of lolling from your stupid mouth when your instructor's back is turned. Mayhap the day will come when it and you will learn their respective places." He struck Cuthbert again, this time solidly between the eyes and hard enough so that Roland heard a dull thud--the sound a mallet makes when a scullion taps a keg of beer. Cuthbert fell backward onto the lawn, his eyes cloudy and dazed at first. Then they cleared and he stared burningly up at Cort, his usual easy grin nowhere to be seen, his hatred unveiled, a pinprick as bright as the dove's blood in the center of each eye. He nodded and parted his lips in a scarifying smile that Roland had never seen.

"Then there's hope for you," Cort said. "When you think you can, you come for me, maggot."

"How did you know?" Cuthbert said between his teeth.

Cort turned toward Roland so swiftly that Roland almost fell back a step--and then both of them would have been on the grass, decorating the new green with their blood. "I saw it reflected in this maggot's eyes," he said. "Remember it, Cuthbert Allgood. Last lesson for today."

Cuthbert nodded again, the same frightening smile on his face. "I grieve," he said. "I have forgotten the face--"

"Cut that shit," Cort said, losing interest. He turned to Roland. "Go on, now. The both of you. If I have to look at your stupid maggot faces any longer I'll puke my guts and lose a good dinner."

"Come on," Roland said.

Cuthbert shook his head to clear it and got to his feet. Cort was already walking down the hill in his squat, bowlegged stride, looking powerful and somehow prehistoric. The shaved and grizzled spot at the top of his head glimmered.

"I'll kill the son of a bitch," Cuthbert said, still smiling. A large goose egg, purple and knotted, was rising mystically on his forehead.

"Not you or me," Roland said, suddenly bursting into a grin. "You can have supper in the west kitchen with me. Cook will give us some."

"He'll tell Cort."

"He's no friend of Cort's," Roland said, and then shrugged. "And what if he did?"

Cuthbert grinned back. "Sure. Right. I always wanted to know how the world looked when your head was on backwards and upside down."

They started back together over the green lawns, casting shadows in the fine white springlight.





IX


The cook in the west kitchen was named Hax. He stood huge in foodstained whites, a man with a crude-oil complexion whose ancestry was a quarter black, a quarter yellow, a quarter from the South Islands, now almost forgotten (the world had moved on), and a quarter gods-knew-what. He shuffled about three high-ceilinged steamy rooms like a tractor in low gear, wearing huge, Caliph-like slippers. He was one of those quite rare adults who communicate with small children fairly well and who love them all impartially--not in a sugary way but in a business-like fashion that may sometimes entail a hug, in the same way that closing a big business deal may call for a handshake. He even loved the boys who had begun the way of the gun, although they were different from other children--undemonstrative and always slightly dangerous, not in an adult way, but rather as if they were ordinary children with a slight touch of madness--and Bert was not the first of Cort's students whom he had fed on the sly. At this moment he stood in front of his huge, rambling electric stove--one of six working appliances left on the whole estate. It was his personal domain, and he stood there watching the two boys bolt the gravied meat scraps he had produced. Behind, before, and all around, cookboys, scullions, and various underlings rushed through the steaming, humid air, rattling pans, stirring stew, slaving over potatoes and vegetables in nether regions. In the dimly lit pantry alcove, a washerwoman with a doughy, miserable face and hair caught up in a rag splashed water around on the floor with a mop.

One of the scullery boys rushed up with a man from the Guards in tow. "This man, he wantchoo, Hax."

"All right." Hax nodded to the Guard, and he nodded back. "You boys," he said. "Go over to Maggie, she'll give you some pie. Then scat. Don't get me in trouble."

Later they would both remember he'd said that: Don't get me in trouble.

They nodded and went over to Maggie, who gave them huge wedges of pie on dinner plates--but gingerly, as if they were wild dogs that might bite her.

"Let's eat it understairs," Cuthbert said.

"All right."

They sat behind a huge, sweating stone colonnade, out of sight of the kitchen, and gobbled their pie with their fingers. It was only moments later that they saw shadows fall on the far curving wall of the wide staircase. Roland grabbed Cuthbert's arm. "Come on," he said. "Someone's coming." Cuthbert looked up, his face surprised and berry-stained.

But the shadows stopped, still out of sight. It was Hax and the man from the Guards. The boys sat where they were. If they moved now, they might be heard.

". . . the good man," the Guard was saying.

"Farson?"

"In two weeks," the Guard replied. "Maybe three. You have to come with us. There's a shipment from the freight depot . . ." A particularly loud crash of pots and pans and a volley of catcalls directed at the hapless potboy who had dropped them blotted out some of the rest; then the boys heard the Guard finish: ". . . poisoned meat."

"Risky."

"Ask not what the good man can do for you--" the Guard began.

"But what you can do for him." Hax sighed. "Soldier, ask not."

"You know what it could mean," the Guard said quietly.

"Yar. And I know my responsibilities to him; you don't need to lecture me. I love him just as you do. Would foller him into the sea if he asked; so I would."

"All right. The meat will be marked for short-term storage in your coldrooms. But you'll have to be quick. You must understand that."

"There are children in Taunton?" the cook asked. It was not really a question.

"Children everywhere," the Guard said gently. "It's the children we--and he--care about."

"Poisoned meat. Such a strange way to care for children." Hax uttered a heavy, whistling sigh. "Will they curdle and hold their bellies and cry for their mammas? I suppose they will."

"It will be like going to sleep," the Guard said, but his voice was too confidently reasonable.

"Of course," Hax said, and laughed.

"You said it yourself. 'Soldier, ask not.' Do you enjoy seeing children under the rule of the gun, when they could be under his hands, ready to start making a new world?"

Hax did not reply.

"I go on duty in twenty minutes," the Guard said, his voice once more calm. "Give me a joint of mutton and I'll pinch one of your girls and make her giggle. When I leave--"

"My mutton will give no cramps to your belly, Robeson."

"Will you . . ." But the shadows moved away and the voices were lost.

I could have killed them, Roland thought, frozen and fascinated. I could have killed them both with my knife, slit their throats like hogs. He looked at his hands, now stained with gravy and berries as well as dirt from the day's lessons.

"Roland."

He looked at Cuthbert. They looked at each other for a long moment in the fragrant semidarkness, and a taste of warm despair rose in Roland's throat. What he felt might have been a sort of death--something as brutal and final as the death of the dove in the white sky over the games field. Hax? he thought, bewildered. Hax who put a poultice on my leg that time? Hax? And then his mind snapped closed, cutting the subject off.

What he saw, even in Cuthbert's humorous, intelligent face, was nothing--nothing at all. Cuthbert's eyes were flat with Hax's doom. In Cuthbert's eyes, it had already happened. He had fed them and they had gone understairs to eat and then Hax had brought the Guard named Robeson to the wrong corner of the kitchen for their treasonous little tete-a-tete. Ka had worked as ka sometimes did, as suddenly as a big stone rolling down a hillside. That was all.

Cuthbert's eyes were gunslinger's eyes.





X


Roland's father was only just back from the uplands, and he looked out of place amid the drapes and the chiffon fripperies of the main receiving hall to which the boy had only lately been granted access, as a sign of his apprenticeship.

Steven Deschain was dressed in black jeans and a blue work shirt. His cloak, dusty and streaked, torn to the lining in one place, was slung carelessly over his shoulder with no regard for the way it and he clashed with the elegance of the room. He was desperately thin and the heavy handlebar mustache below his nose seemed to weight his head as he looked down at his son. The guns crisscrossed over the wings of his hips hung at the perfect angle for his hands, the worn sandalwood grips looking dull and sleepy in this languid indoor light.

"The head cook," his father said softly. "Imagine it! The tracks that were blown upland at the railhead. The dead stock in Hendrickson. And perhaps even . . . imagine! Imagine!"

He looked more closely at his son. "It preys on you."

"Like the hawk," Roland said. "It preys on you." He laughed--at the startling appropriateness of the image rather than at any lightness in the situation.

His father smiled.

"Yes," Roland said. "I guess it . . . it preys on me."

"Cuthbert was with you," his father said. "He will have told his father by now."

"Yes."

"He fed both of you when Cort--"

"Yes."

"And Cuthbert. Does it prey on him, do you think?"

"I don't know." Nor did he care. He was not concerned with how his feelings compared with those of others.

"It preys on you because you feel you've caused a man's death?"

Roland shrugged unwillingly, all at once not content with this probing of his motivations.

"Yet you told. Why?"

The boy's eyes widened. "How could I not? Treason was--"

His father waved a hand curtly. "If you did it for something as cheap as a schoolbook idea, you did it unworthily. I would rather see all of Taunton poisoned."

"I didn't!" The words jerked out of him violently. "I wanted to kill him--both of them! Liars! Black liars! Snakes! They--"

"Go ahead."

"They hurt me," he finished, defiant. "They changed something and it hurt. I wanted to kill them for it. I wanted to kill them right there."

His father nodded. "That's crude, Roland, but not unworthy. Not moral, either, but it is not your place to be moral. In fact . . ." He peered at his son. "Morals may always be beyond you. You are not quick, like Cuthbert or Vannay's boy. That's all right, though. It will make you formidable."

The boy felt both pleased and troubled by this. "He'll--"

"Oh, he'll hang."

The boy nodded. "I want to see it."

The elder Deschain threw his head back and roared laughter. "Not as formidable as I thought . . . or perhaps just stupid." He closed his mouth abruptly. An arm shot out and grabbed the boy's upper arm painfully. Roland grimaced but didn't flinch. His father peered at him steadily, and the boy looked back, although it was more difficult than hooding the hawk had been.

"All right," he said, "thee may." And turned abruptly to go.

"Father?"

"What?"

"Do you know who they were talking about? Do you know who the good man is?"

His father turned back and looked at him speculatively. "Yes. I think I do."

"If you caught him," Roland said in his thoughtful, near-plodding way, "no one else like Cook would have to be neck-popped."

His father smiled thinly. "Perhaps not for a while. But in the end, someone always has to have his or her neck popped, as you so quaintly put it. The people demand it. Sooner or later, if there isn't a turncoat, the people make one."

"Yes," Roland said, grasping the concept instantly--it was one he never forgot. "But if you got the good man--"

"No," his father said flatly.

"Why not? Why wouldn't that end it?"

For a moment his father seemed on the verge of saying why, but then shook his head. "We've talked enough for now, I think. Go out from me."

He wanted to tell his father not to forget his promise when the time came for Hax to step through the trap, but he was sensitive to his father's moods. He put his fist to his forehead, crossed one foot in front of the other, and bowed. Then he went out, closing the door quickly. He suspected that what his father wanted now was to fuck. He was aware that his mother and father did that, and he was reasonably well informed as to how it was done, but the mental picture that always condensed with the thought made him feel both uneasy and oddly guilty. Some years later, Susan would tell him the story of Oedipus, and he would absorb it in quiet thoughtfulness, thinking of the odd and bloody triangle formed by his father, his mother, and by Marten--known in some quarters as Farson, the good man. Or perhaps it was a quadrangle, if one wished to add himself.





XI


Gallows Hill was on the Taunton Road, which was nicely poetic; Cuthbert might have appreciated this, but Roland did not. He did appreciate the splendidly ominous scaffold which climbed into the brilliantly blue sky, an angular silhouette which overhung the coach road.

The two boys had been let out of Morning Exercises--Cort had read the notes from their fathers laboriously, lips moving, nodding here and there. When he finished with them, he had carefully put the papers away in his pocket. Even here in Gilead, paper was easily as valuable as gold. When these two sheets of it were safe, he'd looked up at the blue-violet dawn sky and nodded again.

"Wait here," he said, and went toward the leaning stone hut that served him as living quarters. He came back with a slice of rough, unleavened bread, broke it in two, and gave half to each.

"When it's over, each of you will put this beneath his shoes. Mind you do exactly as I say or I'll clout you into next week."

They had not understood until they arrived, riding double on Cuthbert's gelding. They were the first, fully two hours ahead of anyone else and four hours before the hanging, so Gallows Hill stood deserted--except for the rooks and ravens. The birds were everywhere. They roosted noisily on the hard, jutting bar that overhung the trap--the armature of death. They sat in a row along the edge of the platform, they jostled for position on the stairs.

"They leave the bodies," Cuthbert muttered. "For the birds."

"Let's go up," Roland said.

Cuthbert looked at him with something like horror. "Up there? Do you think--"

Roland cut him off with a gesture of his hands. "We're years early. No one will come."

"All right."

They walked slowly toward the gibbet, and the birds took wing, cawing and circling like a mob of angry dispossessed peasants. Their bodies were flat black against the pure dawnlight of the In-World sky.

For the first time Roland felt the enormity of his responsibility in the matter; this wood was not noble, not part of the awesome machine of Civilization, but merely warped pine from the Forest o' Barony, covered with splattered white bird droppings. It was splashed everywhere--stairs, railing, platform--and it stank.

The boy turned to Cuthbert with startled, terrified eyes and saw Cuthbert looking back at him with the same expression.

"I can't," Cuthbert whispered. "Ro', I can't watch it."

Roland shook his head slowly. There was a lesson here, he realized, not a shining thing but something that was old and rusty and misshapen. It was why their fathers had let them come. And with his usual stubborn and inarticulate doggedness, Roland laid mental hands on whatever it was.

"You can, Bert."

"I won't sleep tonight if I do."

"Then you won't," Roland said, not seeing what that had to do with it.

Cuthbert suddenly seized Roland's hand and looked at him with such mute agony that Roland's own doubt came back, and he wished sickly that they had never gone to the west kitchen that night. His father had been right. Better not to know. Better every man, woman, and child in Taunton dead and stinking than this.

But still. Still. Whatever the lesson was, rusty, whatever half-buried thing with sharp edges, he would not let it go or give up his grip on it.

"Let's not go up," Cuthbert said. "We've seen everything."

And Roland nodded reluctantly, feeling his grip on that thing--whatever it was--weaken. Cort, he knew, would have knocked them both sprawling and then forced them up to the platform step by cursing step . . . and sniffing fresh blood back up their noses and down their throats like salty jam as they went. Cort would probably have looped new hemp over the yardarm itself and put the noose around each of their necks in turn, would have made them stand on the trap to feel it; and Cort would have been ready to strike them again if either wept or lost control of his bladder. And Cort, of course, would have been right. For the first time in his life, Roland found himself hating his own childhood. He wished for the long boots of age.

He deliberately pried a splinter from the railing and placed it in his breast pocket before turning away.

"Why did you do that?" Cuthbert asked.

He wished to answer something swaggering: Oh, the luck of the gallows . . . , but he only looked at Cuthbert and shook his head. "Just so I'll have it," he said. "Always have it."

They walked away from the gallows, sat down, and waited. In an hour or so the first of the townfolk began to gather, mostly families who had come in broken-down wagons and beat-up buckas, carrying their breakfasts with them--hampers of cold pancakes folded over fillings of wild pokeberry jam. Roland felt his stomach growl hungrily and wondered again, with despair, where the honor and the nobility was. He had been taught of such things, and was now forced to wonder if they had been lies all along, or only treasures buried deep by the wise. He wanted to believe that, but it seemed to him that Hax in his dirty whites, walking around and around his steaming, subterranean kitchen and yellin
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