The Gunslinger

here 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.

The gunslinger led his mule past them and looked into the dim depths of the barn. One lamp glowed sunkenly. A shadow jumped and flickered as a gangling old man in bib overalls forked loose timothy hay into the hayloft with big, grunting swipes of his fork.

"Hey!" the gunslinger called.

The fork faltered and the hostler looked around with yellow-tinged eyes. "Hey yourself!"

"I got a mule here."

"Good for you."

The gunslinger flicked a heavy, unevenly milled gold piece into the semidark. It rang on the old, chaff-drifted boards and glittered.

The hostler came forward, bent, picked it up, squinted at the gunslinger. His eyes dropped to the gunbelts and he nodded sourly. "How long you want him put up?"

"A night or two. Maybe longer."

"I ain't got no change for gold."

"Didn't ask for any."

"Shoot-up money," the hostler muttered.

"What did you say?"

"Nothing." The hostler caught the mule's bridle and led him inside.

"Rub him down!" the gunslinger called. "I expect to smell it on him when I come back, hear me well!"

The old man did not turn. The gunslinger walked out to the boys crouched around the marble ring. They had watched the entire exchange with contemptuous interest.

"Long days and pleasant nights," the gunslinger offered conversationally.

No answer.

"You fellas live in town?"

No answer, unless the scorpion's tail gave one: it seemed to nod.

One of the boys removed a crazily tilted twist of cornshuck from his mouth, grasped a green cat's-eye marble, and squirted it into the dirt circle. It struck a croaker and knocked it outside. He picked up the cat's-eye and prepared to shoot again.

"There a cafe in this town?" the gunslinger asked.

One of them looked up, the youngest. There was a huge cold-sore at the corner of his mouth, but his eyes were both the same size, and full of an innocence that wouldn't last long in this shithole. He looked at the gunslinger with hooded brimming wonder that was touching and frightening.

"Might get a burger at Sheb's."

"That the honky-tonk?"

The boy nodded. "Yar." The eyes of his mates had turned ugly and hostile. He would probably pay for having spoken up in kindness.

The gunslinger touched the brim of his hat. "I'm grateful. It's good to know someone in this town is bright enough to talk."

He walked past, mounted the boardwalk, and started down toward Sheb's, hearing the clear, contemptuous voice of one of the others, hardly more than a childish treble: "Weed-eater! How long you been screwin' your sister, Charlie? Weed-eater!" Then the sound of a blow and a cry.

There were three flaring kerosene lamps in front of Sheb's, one to each side and one nailed above the drunk-hung batwing doors. The chorus of "Hey Jude" had petered out, and the piano was plinking some other old ballad. Voices murmured like broken threads. The gunslinger paused outside for a moment, looking in. Sawdust floor, spittoons by the tipsy-legged tables. A plank bar on sawhorses. A gummy mirror behind it, reflecting the piano player, who wore an inevitable piano-stool slouch. The front of the piano had been removed so you could watch the wooden keys whonk up and down as the contraption was played. The bartender was a straw-haired woman wearing a dirty blue dress. One strap was held with a safety pin. There were perhaps six townies in the back of the room, juicing and playing Watch Me apathetically. Another half-dozen were grouped loosely about the piano. Four or five at the bar. And an old man with wild gray hair collapsed at a table by the doors. The gunslinger went in.

Heads swiveled to look at him and his guns. There was a moment of near silence, except for the oblivious piano player, who continued to tinkle. Then the woman mopped at the bar, and things shifted back.

"Watch me," one of the players in the corner said and matched three hearts with four spades, emptying his hand. The one with the hearts swore, pushed over his stake, and the next hand was dealt.

The gunslinger approached the woman at the bar. "You got meat?" he asked.

"Sure." She looked him in the eye, and she might have been pretty when she started out, but the world had moved on since then. Now her face was lumpy and there a livid scar went corkscrewing across her forehead. She had powdered it heavily, and the powder called attention to what it had been meant to camouflage. "Clean beef. Threaded stock. It's dear, though."

Threaded stock, my ass, the gunslinger thought. What you got in your cooler came from something with three eyes, six legs, or both--that's my guess, lady-sai.

"I want three burgers and a beer, would it please ya."

Again that subtle shift in tone. Three hamburgers. Mouths watered and tongues licked at saliva with slow lust. Three hamburgers. Had anyone here ever seen anyone eat three hamburgers at a go?

"That would go you five bocks. Do you ken bocks?"

"Dollars?"

She nodded, so she was probably saying bucks. That was his guess, anyway.

"That with the beer?" he asked, smiling a little. "Or is the beer extra?"

She didn't return the smile. "I'll throw in the suds. Once I see the color of your money, that is."

The gunslinger put a gold piece on the bar, and every eye followed it.

There was a smoldering charcoal cooker behind the bar and to the left of the mirror. The woman disappeared into a small room behind it and returned with meat on a paper. She scrimped out three patties and put them on the grill. The smell that arose was maddening. The gunslinger stood with stolid indifference, only peripherally aware of the faltering piano, the slowing of the card game, the sidelong glances of the barflies.

The man was halfway up behind him when the gunslinger saw him in the mirror. The man was almost completely bald, and his hand was wrapped around the haft of a gigantic hunting knife that was looped onto his belt like a holster.

"Go sit down," the gunslinger said. "Do yourself a favor, cully."

The man stopped. His upper lip lifted unconsciously, like a dog's, and there was a moment of silence. Then he went back to his table, and the atmosphere shifted back again.

Beer came in a cracked glass schooner. "I ain't got change for gold," the woman said truculently.

"Don't expect any."

She nodded angrily, as if this show of wealth, even at her benefit, incensed her. But she took his gold, and a moment later the hamburgers came on a cloudy plate, still red around the edges.

"Do you have salt?"

She gave it to him in a little crock she took from underneath the bar, white lumps he'd have to crumble with his fingers. "Bread?"

"No bread." He knew she was lying, but he also knew why and didn't push it. The bald man was staring at him with cya-nosed eyes, his hands clenching and unclenching on the splintered and gouged surface of his table. His nostrils flared with pulsating regularity, scooping up the smell of the meat. That, at least, was free.

The gunslinger began to eat steadily, not seeming to taste, merely chopping the meat apart and forking it into his mouth, trying not to think of what the cow this had come from must have looked like. Threaded stock, she had said. Yes, quite likely! And pigs would dance the commala in the light of the Peddler's Moon.

He was almost through, ready to call for another beer and roll a smoke, when the hand fell on his shoulder.

He suddenly became aware that the room had once more gone silent, and he tasted tension in the air. He turned around and stared into the face of the man who had been asleep by the door when he entered. It was a terrible face. The odor of the devil-grass was a rank miasma. The eyes were damned, the staring, glaring eyes of one who sees but does not see, eyes ever turned inward to the sterile hell of dreams beyond control, dreams unleashed, risen out of the stinking swamps of the unconscious.

The woman behind the bar made a small moaning sound.

The cracked lips writhed, lifted, revealing the green, mossy teeth, and the gunslinger thought: He's not even smoking it anymore. He's chewing it. He's really chewing it.

And on the heels of that: He's a dead man. He should have been dead a year ago.

And on the heels of that: The man in black did this.

They stared at each other, the gunslinger and the man who had gone around the rim of madness.

He spoke, and the gunslinger, dumbfounded, heard himself addressed in the High Speech of Gilead.

"The gold for a favor, gunslinger-sai. Just one? For a pretty."

The High Speech. For a moment his mind refused to track it. It had been years--God!--centuries, millenniums; there was no more High Speech; he was the last, the last gunslinger. The others were all . . .

Numbed, he reached into his breast pocket and produced a gold piece. The split, scabbed, gangrenous hand reached for it, fondled it, held it up to reflect the greasy glare of the kerosene lamps. It threw off its proud civilized glow; golden, reddish, bloody.

"Ahhhhhh . . ." An inarticulate sound of pleasure. The old man did a weaving turn and began moving back to his table, holding the coin at eye level, turning it, flashing it.

The room was emptying rapidly, the batwings shuttling madly back and forth. The piano player closed the lid of his instrument with a bang and exited after the others in long, comic-opera strides.

"Sheb!" the woman screamed after him, her voice an odd mixture of fear and shrewishness, "Sheb, you come back here! Goddammit!" Was that a name the gunslinger had heard before? He thought yes, but there was no time to reflect upon it now, or to cast his mind back.

The old man, meanwhile, had gone back to his table. He spun the gold piece on the gouged wood, and the dead-alive eyes followed it with empty fascination. He spun it a second time, a third, and his eyelids drooped. The fourth time, and his head settled to the wood before the coin stopped.

"There," she said softly, furiously. "You've driven out my trade. Are you satisfied?"

"They'll be back," the gunslinger said.

"Not tonight they won't."

"Who is he?" He gestured at the weed-eater.

"Go fuck yourself. Sai."

"I have to know," the gunslinger said patiently. "He--"

"He talked to you funny," she said. "Nort never talked like that in his life."

"I'm looking for a man. You would know him."

She stared at him, the anger dying. It was replaced with speculation, then with a high, wet gleam he had seen before. The rickety building ticked thoughtfully to itself. A dog barked brayingly, far away. The gunslinger waited. She saw his knowledge and the gleam was replaced by hopelessness, by a dumb need that had no mouth.

"I guess maybe you know my price," she said. "I got an itch I used to be able to take care of, but now I can't."

He looked at her steadily. The scar would not show in the dark. Her body was lean enough so the desert and grit and grind hadn't been able to sag everything. And she'd once been pretty, maybe even beautiful. Not that it mattered. It would not have mattered if the grave-beetles had nested in the arid blackness of her womb. It had all been written. Somewhere some hand had put it all down in ka's book.

Her hands came up to her face and there was still some juice left in her--enough to weep.

"Don't look! You don't have to look at me so mean!"

"I'm sorry," the gunslinger said. "I didn't mean to be mean."

"None of you mean it!" she cried at him.

"Close the place up and put out the lights."

She wept, hands at her face. He was glad she had her hands at her face. Not because of the scar but because it gave her back her maidenhood, if not her maidenhead. The pin that held the strap of her dress glittered in the greasy light.

"Will he steal anything? I'll put him out if he will."

"No," she whispered. "Nort don't steal."

"Then put out the lights."

She would not remove her hands until she was behind him and she doused the lamps one by one, turning down the wicks and breathing the flames into extinction. Then she took his hand in the dark and it was warm. She led him upstairs. There was no light to hide their act.





VI


He made cigarettes in the dark, then lit them and passed one to her. The room held her scent, fresh lilac, pathetic. The smell of the desert had overlaid it. He realized he was afraid of the desert ahead.

"His name is Nort," she said. No harshness had been worn out of her voice. "Just Nort. He died."

The gunslinger waited.

"He was touched by God."

The gunslinger said, "I have never seen Him."

"He was here ever since I can remember--Nort, I mean, not God." She laughed jaggedly into the dark. "He had a honey-wagon for a while. Started to drink. Started to smell the grass. Then to smoke it. The kids started to follow him around and sic their dogs onto him. He wore old green pants that stank. Do you understand?"

"Yes."

"He started to chew it. At the last he just sat in there and didn't eat anything. He might have been a king, in his mind. The children might have been his jesters, and the dogs his princes."

"Yes."

"He died right in front of this place," she said. "Came clumping down the boardwalk--his boots wouldn't wear out, they were engineer boots he found in the old trainyard--with the children and dogs behind him. He looked like wire clothes hangers all wrapped and twirled together. You could see all the lights of hell in his eyes, but he was grinning, just like the grins the children carve into their sharproots and pumpkins, come Reap. You could smell the dirt and the rot and the weed. It was running down from the corners of his mouth like green blood. I think he meant to come in and listen to Sheb play the piano. And right in front, he stopped and cocked his head. I could see him, and I thought he heard a coach, although there was none due. Then he puked, and it was black and full of blood. It went right through that grin like sewer water through a grate. The stink was enough to make you want to run mad. He raised up his arms and just threw over. That was all. He died in his own vomit with that grin on his face."

"A nice story."

"Oh yes, thankee-sai. This be a nice place."

She was trembling beside him. Outside, the wind kept up its steady whine, and somewhere far away a door was banging, like a sound heard in a dream. Mice ran in the walls. The gunslinger thought in the back of his mind that it was probably the only place in town prosperous enough to support mice. He put a hand on her belly and she started violently, then relaxed.

"The man in black," he said.

"You have to have it, don't you? You couldn't just throw me a fuck and go to sleep."

"I have to have it."

"All right. I'll tell you." She grasped his hand in both of hers and told him.





VII


He came in the late afternoon of the day Nort died, and the wind was whooping it up, pulling away the loose topsoil, sending sheets of grit and uprooted stalks of corn windmilling past. Jubal Kennerly had padlocked the livery, and the few other merchants had shuttered their windows and laid boards across the shutters. The sky was the yellow color of old cheese and the clouds flew across it, as if they had seen something horrifying in the desert wastes where they had so lately been.

The gunslinger's quarry came in a rickety rig with a rippling tarp tied across its bed. There was a big howdy-do of a grin on his face. They watched him come, and old man Kennerly, lying by the window with a bottle in one hand and the loose, hot flesh of his second-eldest daughter's left breast in the other, resolved not to be there if he should knock.

But the man in black went by without slowing the bay that pulled his rig, and the spinning wheels spumed up dust that the wind clutched eagerly. He might have been a priest or a monk; he wore a black robe that had been floured with dust, and a loose hood covered his head and obscured his features, but not that horrid happy grin. The robe rippled and flapped. From beneath the garment's hem there peeped heavy buckled boots with square toes.

He pulled up in front of Sheb's and tethered the horse, which lowered its head and grunted at the ground. Around the back of the rig he untied one flap, found a weathered saddlebag, threw it over his shoulder, and went in through the batwings.

Alice watched him curiously, but no one else noticed his arrival. The regulars were drunk as lords. Sheb was playing Methodist hymns ragtime, and the grizzled layabouts who had come in early to avoid the storm and to attend Nort's wake had sung themselves hoarse. Sheb, drunk nearly to the point of senselessness, intoxicated and horny with his own continued existence, played with hectic, shuttlecock speed, fingers flying like looms.

Voices screeched and hollered, never overcoming the wind but sometimes seeming to challenge it. In the corner, Zachary had thrown Amy Feldon's skirts over her head and was painting Reap-charms on her knees. A few other women circulated. A fever seemed to be on all of them. The dull stormglow that filtered through the batwings seemed to mock them, however.

Nort had been laid out on two tables in the center of the room. His engineer boots made a mystical V. His mouth hung open in a slack grin, although someone had closed his eyes and put slugs on them. His hands had been folded on his chest with a sprig of devil-grass in them. He smelled like poison.

The man in black pushed back his hood and came to the bar. Alice watched him, feeling trepidation mixed with the familiar want that hid within her. There was no religious symbol on him, although that meant nothing by itself.

"Whiskey," he said. His voice was soft and pleasant. "I want the good stuff, honey."

She reached under the counter and brought out a bottle of Star. She could have palmed off the local popskull on him as her best, but did not. She poured, and the man in black watched her. His eyes were large, luminous. The shadows were too thick to determine their color exactly. Her need intensified. The hollering and whooping went on behind, unabated. Sheb, the worthless gelding, was playing about the Christian Soldiers and somebody had persuaded Aunt Mill to sing. Her voice, warped and distorted, cut through the babble like a dull ax through a c
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