By the time he arrived at Kennerly’s, a queer obscurity had come over the northern horizon and he knew it was dust. Over Tull the air was still dead quiet.
Kennerly was waiting for him on the chaff-strewn stage that was the floor of his barn. “Leaving?” He grinned abjectly at the gunslinger.
“Not before the storm?”
“Ahead of it.”
“The wind goes faster than any man on a mule. In the open it can kill you.”
“I’ll want the mule now,” the gunslinger said simply.
“Sure.” But Kennerly did not turn away, merely stood as if searching for something further to say, grinning his groveling, hate-filled grin, and his eyes flicked up and over the gunslinger’s shoulder.
The gunslinger sidestepped and turned at the same time, and the heavy stick of stovewood that the girl Soobie held swished through the air, grazing his elbow only. She lost hold of it with the force of her swing and it clattered over the floor. In the explosive height of the loft, barnswallows took shadowed wing.
The girl looked at him bovinely. Her breasts thrust with overripe grandeur at the wash-faded shirt she wore. One thumb sought the haven of her mouth with dream-like slowness.
The gunslinger turned back to Kennerly. Kennerly’s grin was huge. His skin was waxy yellow. His eyes rolled in their sockets. “I . . .” he began in a phlegm-filled whisper and could not continue.
“The mule,” the gunslinger prodded gently.
“Sure, sure, sure,” Kennerly whispered, the grin now touched with incredulity that he should still be alive. He shuffled to get it.
The gunslinger moved to where he could watch the man go. The hostler brought the mule back and handed him the bridle. “You get in an’ tend your sister,” he said to Soobie. Soobie tossed her head and didn’t move.
The gunslinger left them there, staring at each other across the dusty, droppings-strewn floor, he with his sick grin, she with dumb, inanimate defiance. Outside the heat was still like a hammer.
He walked the mule up the center of the street, his boots sending up squirts of dust. His waterbags, swollen with water, were strapped across the mule’s back.
He stopped at the tonk, but Allie was not there. The place was deserted, battened down for the storm, but still dirty from the night before. It stank of sour beer.
He filled his tote sack with corn meal, dried and roasted corn, and half of the raw hamburg in the cooler. He left four gold pieces stacked on the planked counter. Allie did not come down. Sheb’s piano bid him a silent, yellow-toothed toodle-oo. He stepped back out and cinched the tote sack across the mule’s back. There was a tight feeling in his throat. He might still avoid the trap, but the chances were small. He was, after all, The Interloper.
He walked past the shuttered, waiting buildings, feeling the eyes that peered through cracks and chinks. The man in black had played God in Tull. He had spoken of a King’s child, a red prince. Was it only a sense of the cosmic comic, or a matter of desperation? It was a question of some importance.
There was a shrill, harried scream from behind him, and doors suddenly threw themselves open. Forms lunged. The trap was sprung. Men in longhandles and men in dirty dungarees. Women in slacks and in faded dresses. Even children, tagging after their parents. And in every hand there was a chunk of wood or a knife.
His reaction was automatic, instantaneous, inbred. He whirled on his heels while his hands pulled the guns from their holsters, the butts heavy and sure in his hands. It was Allie, and of course it had to be Allie, coming at him with her face distorted, the scar a hellish purple in the lowering light. He saw that she was held hostage; the distorted, grimacing face of Sheb peered over her shoulder like a witch’s familiar. She was his shield and sacrifice. He saw it all, clear and shadowless in the frozen, deathless light of the sterile calm, and heard her:
“Kill me, Roland, kill me! I said the word, nineteen, I said, and he told me . . . I can’t bear it—”
The hands were trained to give her what she wanted. He was the last of his breed and it was not only his mouth that knew the High Speech. The guns beat their heavy, atonal music into the air. Her mouth flapped and she sagged and the guns fired again. The last expression on her face might have been gratitude. Sheb’s head snapped back. They both fell into the dust.
They’ve gone to the land of Nineteen, he thought. Whatever is there.
Sticks flew through the air, rained on him. He staggered, fended them off. One with a nail pounded raggedly through it ripped at his arm and drew blood. A man with a beard stubble and sweat-stained armpits lunged, flying at him with a dull kitchen knife held in one paw. The gunslinger shot him dead and the man thumped into the street. His false teeth shot out as his chin struck and grinned, spit-shiny, in the dirt.
“SATAN!” someone was screaming: “THE ACCURSED! BRING HIM DOWN!”
“THE INTERLOPER!” another voice cried. Sticks rained on him. A knife struck his boot and bounced. “THE INTERLOPER! THE ANTICHRIST!”
He blasted his way through the middle of them, running as the bodies fell, his hands picking the targets with ease and dreadful accuracy. Two men and a woman went down, and he ran through the hole they left.
He led them a feverish parade across the street and toward the rickety general store/barber shop that faced Sheb’s. He mounted the boardwalk, turned again, and fired the rest of his loads into the charging crowd. Behind them, Sheb and Allie and the others lay crucified in the dust.
They never hesitated or faltered, although every shot he fired found a vital spot and although they had probably never seen a gun.
He retreated, moving his body like a dancer to avoid the flying missiles. He reloaded as he went, with a rapidity that had also been trained into his fingers. They shuttled busily between gunbelts and cylinders. The mob came up over the boardwalk and he stepped into the general store and rammed the door closed. The large display window to the right shattered inward and three men crowded through. Their faces were zealously blank, their eyes filled with bland fire. He shot them all, and the two that followed them. They fell in the window, hung on the jutting shards of glass, choking the opening.
The door crashed and shuddered with their weight and he could hear her voice: “THE KILLER! YOUR SOULS! THE CLOVEN HOOF!”
The door ripped off its hinges and fell straight in, making a flat handclap. Dust puffed up from the floor. Men, women, and children charged him. Spittle and stovewood flew. He shot his guns empty and they fell like ninepins in a game of Points. He retreated into the barber shop, shoving over a flour barrel, rolling it at them, throwing a pan of boiling water that contained two nicked straight-razors. They came on, screaming with frantic incoherency. From somewhere, Sylvia Pittston exhorted them, her voice rising and falling in blind inflections. He pushed shells into hot chambers, smelling the aromas of shave and tonsure, smelling his own flesh as the calluses at the tips of his fingers singed.
He went through the back door and onto the porch. The flat scrubland was at his back now, flatly denying the town that crouched against its dirty haunch. Three men hustled around the corner, with large betrayer grins on their faces. They saw him, saw him seeing them, and the grins curdled in the second before he mowed them down. A woman had followed them, howling. She was large and fat and known to the patrons of Sheb’s as Aunt Mill. The gunslinger blew her backwards and she landed in a whorish sprawl, her skirt rucked up between her thighs.
He went down the steps and walked backwards into the desert: ten paces, twenty. The back door of the barber shop flew open and they boiled out. He caught a glimpse of Sylvia Pittston. He opened up. They fell in squats, they fell backwards, they tumbled over the railing into the dust. They cast no shadows in the deathless purple light of the day. He realized he was screaming. He had been screaming all along. His eyes felt like cracked ball bearings. His balls had drawn up against his belly. His legs were wood. His ears were iron.
The guns were empty and they boiled at him, transmogrified into an Eye and a Hand, and he stood, screaming and reloading, his mind far away and absent, letting his hands do their reloading trick. Could he hold up a hand, tell them he had spent a thousand years learning this trick and others, tell them of the guns and the blood that had blessed them? Not with his mouth. But his hands could speak their own tale.
They were in throwing range as he finished reloading, and a stick struck him on the forehead and brought blood in abraded drops. In two seconds they would be in gripping distance. In the forefront he saw Kennerly; Kennerly’s younger daughter, perhaps eleven; Soobie; two male barflies; a whore named Amy Feldon. He let them all have it, and the ones behind them. Their bodies thumped like scarecrows. Blood and brains flew in streamers.
They halted for a moment, startled, the mob face shivering into individual, bewildered faces. A man ran in a large, screaming circle. A woman with blisters on her hands turned her head up and cackled feverishly at the sky. The man whom he had first seen sitting gravely on the steps of the mercantile store made a sudden and amazing load in his pants.
He had time to reload one gun.
Then it was Sylvia Pittston, running at him, waving a wooden cross in each hand. “DEVIL! DEVIL! DEVIL! CHILDKILLER! MONSTER! DESTROY HIM, BROTHERS AND SISTERS! DESTROY THE CHILDKILLING INTERLOPER!”
He put a shot into each of the crosspieces, blowing the roods to splinters, and four more into the woman’s head. She seemed to accordion into herself and waver like a shimmer of heat.
They all stared at her for a moment in tableau, while the gunslinger’s fingers did their reloading trick. The tips of his fingers sizzled and burned. Neat circles were branded into the tips of each one.
There were fewer of them now; he had run through them like a mower’s scythe. He thought they would break with the woman dead, but someone threw a knife. The hilt struck him squarely between the eyes and knocked him over. They ran at him in a reaching, vicious clot. He fired his guns empty again, lying in his own spent shells. His head hurt and he saw large brown circles in front of his eyes. He missed with one shot, downed eleven with the rest