In bed again.
“She won’t see you,” Allie said. She sounded frightened. “She doesn’t see anybody. She only comes out on Sunday evenings to scare the hell out of everybody.”
“How long has she been here?”
“Twelve years. Or maybe only two. Time’s funny, as thou knows. Let’s not talk about her.” “Where did she come from? Which direction?”
“I don’t know.” Lying.
“I don’t know!”
“All right! All right! She came from the dwellers! From the desert!”
“I thought so.” He relaxed a little. Southeast, in other words. Along the path he followed. The one he could even see in the sky, sometimes. And he guessed the preacher-woman had come a lot further than from the dwellers or even the desert. How had she traveled so far? By way of some old machine that still worked? A train, mayhap? “Where does she live?”
Her voice dropped a notch. “If I tell you, will you make love to me?”
“I’ll make love to you, anyway. But I want to know.”
Allie sighed. It was an old, yellow sound, like turning pages. “She has a house over the knoll in back of the church. A little shack. It’s where the . . . the real minister used to live until he moved out. Is that enough? Are you satisfied?”
“No. Not yet.” And he rolled on top of her. It was the last day, and he knew it.
The sky was an ugly, bruised purple, weirdly lit from above with the first fingers of dawn. Allie moved about like a wraith, lighting lamps, tending corn fritters that sputtered in the skillet. He had loved her hard after she had told him what he had to know, and she had sensed the coming end and had given more than she had ever given, and she had given it with desperation against the coming of dawn, given it with the tireless energy of sixteen. But she was pale this morning, on the brink of menopause again.
She served him without a word. He ate rapidly, chewing, swallowing, chasing each bite with hot coffee. Allie went to the batwings and stood staring out at the morning, at the silent battalions of slow-moving clouds.
“It’s going to dust up today.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“Are you ever?” she asked ironically, and turned to watch him get his hat. He clapped it on his head and brushed past her.
“Sometimes,” he told her. He only saw her once more alive.
By the time he reached Sylvia Pittston’s shack, the wind had died utterly and the whole world seemed to wait. He had been in desert country long enough to know that the longer the lull, the harder the blow when it finally came. A queer, flat light hung over everything.
There was a large wooden cross nailed to the door of the place, which was leaning and tired. He rapped and waited. No answer. He rapped again. No answer. He drew back and kicked in the door with one hard shot of his right boot. A small bolt on the inside ripped free. The door banged against a haphazardly planked wall and scared rats into skittering flight. Sylvia Pittston sat in the hall, in a mammoth ironwood rocker, and looked at him calmly with those great and dark eyes. The stormlight fell on her cheeks in crazy half-tones. She wore a shawl. The rocker made tiny squeaking noises.
They looked at each other for a long, clockless moment.
“You will never catch him,” she said. “You walk in the way of evil.”
“He came to you,” the gunslinger said.
“And to my bed. He spoke to me in the Tongue. The High Speech. He—”
“He screwed you. In every sense of the word.”
She did not flinch. “You walk an evil way, gunslinger. You stand in shadows. You stood in the shadows of the holy place last night. Did you think I couldn’t see you?”
“Why did he heal the weed-eater?”
“He’s an angel of God. He said so.”
“I hope he smiled when he said it.”
She drew her lip back from her teeth in an unconsciously feral gesture. “He told me you would follow. He told me what to do. He said you are the Antichrist.”
The gunslinger shook his head. “He didn’t say that.” She smiled up at him lazily. “He said you would want to bed me. Is it true?”
“Did you ever meet a man who didn’t want to bed you?”
“The price of my flesh would be your life, gunslinger. He has got me with child. Not his, but the child of a great king. If you invade me . . .” She let the lazy smile complete her thought. At the same time she gestured with her huge, mountainous thighs. They stretched beneath her garment like pure marble slabs. The effect was dizzying.
The gunslinger dropped his hands to the butts of his pistols. “You have a demon, woman, not a king. Yet fear not. I can remove it.”
The effect was instantaneous. She recoiled against the chair, and a weasel look flashed on her face. “Don’t touch me! Don’t come near me! You dare not touch the Bride of God!”
“Want to bet?” the gunslinger said. He stepped toward her. “As the gambler said when he laid down a handful of cups and wands, just watch me.”
The flesh on the huge frame quaked. Her face had become a caricature of terror, and she stabbed the sign of the Eye at him with pronged fingers.
“The desert,” the gunslinger said. “What after the desert?”
“You’ll never catch him! Never! Never! You’ll burn! He told me so!”
“I’ll catch him,” the gunslinger said. “We both know it. What is beyond the desert?”
He slid forward, dropped to his knees, and grabbed her thighs. Her legs locked like a vise. She made strange, lustful keening noises.
“The demon, then,” he said. “Out it comes.”
He pried the legs apart and unholstered one of his guns.
“No! No! No!” Her breath came in short, savage grunts.
She rocked in the chair and the floor trembled. Prayers and garbled bits of scripture flew from her lips.
He rammed the barrel of the gun forward. He could feel the terrified wind sucked into her lungs more than he could hear it. Her hands beat at his head; her legs drummed against the floor. And at the same time the huge body tried to suck the invader in. Outside nothing watched them but the bruised and dusty sky.
She screamed something, high and inarticulate.
“What about them?”
“He stops . . . on the other side . . . s-s-sweet Jesus! to m-make his strength. Med-m-meditation, do you understand? Oh . . . I’m . . . I’m . . .”
The whole huge mountain of flesh suddenly strained forward and upward, yet he was careful not to let her secret flesh touch him.
Then she seemed to wilt and grow smaller, and she wept with her hands in her lap.
“So,” he said, getting up. “The demon is served, eh?”
“Get out. You’ve killed the child of the Crimson King. But you will be repaid. I set my watch and warrant on it. Now get out. Get out.”
He stopped at the door and looked back. “No child,” he said briefly. “No angel, prince, no demon.”
“Leave me alone.”