In the morning she cooked him grits, which he ate without comment. He shoveled them in without thinking about her, hardly seeing her. He knew he should go. Every minute he sat here the man in black was further away—probably out of the hardpan and arroyos and into the desert by now. His path had been undeviatingly southeast, and the gunslinger knew why.
“Do you have a map?” he asked, looking up.
“Of the town?” she laughed. “There isn’t enough of it to need a map.”
“No. Of what’s southeast of here.” Her smile faded. “The desert. Just the desert. I thought you’d stay for a little.”
“What’s on the other side of the desert?”
“How would I know? Nobody crosses it. Nobody’s tried since I was here.” She wiped her hands on her apron, got potholders, and dumped the tub of water she had been heating into the sink, where it splashed and steamed. “The clouds all go that way. It’s like something sucks them—”
He got up.
“Where are you going?” She heard the shrill fear in her voice and hated it.
“To the stable. If anyone knows, the hostler will.” He put his hands on her shoulders. The hands were hard, but they were also warm. “And to arrange for my mule. If I’m going to be here, he should be taken care of. For when I leave.”
But not yet. She looked up at him. “But you watch that Kennerly. If he doesn’t know a thing, he’ll make it up.”
“Thank you, Allie.”
When he left she turned to the sink, feeling the hot, warm drift of her grateful tears. How long since anyone had thanked her? Someone who mattered? Kennerly was a toothless and unpleasant old satyr who had buried two wives and was plagued with daughters. Two half-grown ones peeked at the gunslinger from the dusty shadows of the barn. A baby drooled happily in the dirt. A full-grown one, blond, dirty, and sensual, watched with a speculative curiosity as she drew water from the groaning pump beside the building. She caught the gunslinger’s eye, pinched her nipples between her fingers, dropped him a wink, and then went back to pumping.
The hostler met him halfway between the door to his establishment and the street. His manner vacillated between a kind of hateful hostility and craven fawning.
“Hit’s bein’ cared for, never fear ’at,” he said, and before the gunslinger could reply, Kennerly turned on his daughter with his fists up, a desperate scrawny rooster of a man. “You get in, Soobie! You get right the hell in!”
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 slutwhore! ’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.
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.”