But they were on him, the ones that were left. He fired the four shells he had reloaded, and then they were beating him, stabbing him. He threw a pair of them off his left arm and rolled away. His hands began doing their infallible trick. He was stabbed in the shoulder. He was stabbed in the back. He was hit across the ribs. He was stabbed in the ass with what might have been a meat-fork. A small boy squirmed at him and made the only deep cut, across the bulge of his calf. The gunslinger blew his head off.
They were scattering and he let them have it again, back-shooting now. The ones left began to retreat toward the sand-colored, pitted buildings, and still the hands did their business, like overeager dogs that want to do their rolling-over trick for you not once or twice but all night, and the hands were cutting them down as they ran. The last one made it as far as the steps of the barber shop’s back porch, and then the gunslinger’s bullet took him in the back of the head. “Yowp!” the man cried, and fell over. It was Tull’s final word on the business.
Silence came back in, filling jagged spaces.
The gunslinger was bleeding from perhaps twenty different wounds, all of them shallow except for the cut across his calf. He bound it with a strip of shirt and then straightened and examined his kill.
They trailed in a twisting, zigzagging path from the back door of the barber shop to where he stood. They lay in all positions. None of them seemed to be sleeping. He followed the trail of death, counting as he went. In the general store, one man sprawled with his arms wrapped lovingly around the cracked candy jar he had dragged down with him.
He ended up where he had started, in the middle of the deserted main street. He had shot and killed thirty-nine men, fourteen women, and five children. He had shot and killed everyone in Tull.
A sickish-sweet odor came to him on the first of the dry, stirring wind. He followed it, then looked up and nodded. The decaying body of Nort was spread-eagled atop the plank roof of Sheb’s, crucified with wooden pegs. Mouth and eyes were open. The mark of a large and purple cloven hoof had been pressed into the skin of his grimy forehead.
The gunslinger walked out of town. His mule was standing in a clump of weed about forty yards further along the remnant of the coach road. The gunslinger led it back to Kennerly’s stable. Outside, the wind was playing a jagtime tune. He put the mule up for the time being and went back to the tonk. He found a ladder in the back shed, went up to the roof, and cut Nort loose. The body was lighter than a bag of sticks. He tumbled it down to join the common people, those who would only have to die once. Then he went back inside, ate hamburgers, and drank three beers while the light failed and the sand began to fly. That night he slept in the bed where he and Allie had lain. He had no dreams. The next morning the wind was gone and the sun was its usual bright and forgetful self. The bodies had gone south like tumbleweeds with the wind. At mid-morning, after he had bound all his cuts, he moved on as well He thought Brown had fallen asleep. The fire was down to no more than a spark and the bird, Zoltan, had put his head under his wing.
Just as he was about to get up and spread a pallet in the corner, Brown said, “There. You’ve told it. Do you feel better?”
The gunslinger started. “Why would I feel bad?”
“You’re human, you said. No demon. Or did you lie?”
“I didn’t lie.” He felt the grudging admittance in him: he liked Brown. Honestly did. And he hadn’t lied to the dweller in any way. “Who are you, Brown? Really, I mean.”
“Just me,” he said, unperturbed. “Why do you have to think you’re in the middle of such a mystery?”
The gunslinger lit a smoke without replying.
“I think you’re very close to your man in black,” Brown said. “Is he desperate?”
“I don’t know.”
“Not yet,” the gunslinger said. He looked at Brown with a shade of defiance. “I go where I have to go, do what I have to do.”
“That’s good then,” Brown said and turned over and went to sleep. The next morning, Brown fed him and sent him on his way. In the daylight he was an amazing figure with his scrawny, sunburnt chest, pencil-like collarbones, and loony shock of red hair. The bird perched on his shoulder.
“The mule?” the gunslinger asked.
“I’ll eat it,” Brown said.
Brown offered his hand and the gunslinger shook it. The dweller nodded to the southeast. “Walk easy. Long days and pleasant nights.”
“May you have twice the number.”
They nodded at each other and then the man Allie had called Roland walked away, his body festooned with guns and water. He looked back once. Brown was rooting furiously at his little cornbed. The crow was perched on the low roof of his dwelling like a gargoyle. The fire was down, and the stars had begun to pale off. The wind walked restlessly, told its tale to no one. The gunslinger twitched in his sleep and was still again. He dreamed a thirsty dream. In the darkness the shape of the mountains was invisible. Any thoughts of guilt, any feelings of regret, had faded. The desert had baked them out. He found himself thinking more and more about Cort, who had taught him to shoot. Cort had known black from white. He stirred again and woke. He blinked at the dead fire with its own shape superimposed over the other, more geometrical one. He was a romantic, he knew it, and he guarded the knowledge jealously. It was a secret he had shared with only a few over the years. The girl named Susan, the girl from Mejis, had been one of them.
That, of course, made him think of Cort again. Cort was dead. They were all dead, except for him. The world had moved on.
The gunslinger shouldered his gunna and moved on with it. A nursery rhyme had been playing itself through his mind all day, the maddening kind of thing that will not let go, that mockingly ignores all commands of the conscious mind to cease and desist. The rhyme was:
The rain in Spain falls on the plain.
There is joy and also pain
but the rain in Spain falls on the plain.
Time’s a sheet, life’s a stain,
All the things we know will change
and all those things remain the same,
but be ye mad or only sane,
the rain in Spain falls on the plain.
We walk in love but fly in chains
And the planes in Spain fall in the rain.
He didn’t know what a plane was in the context of the rhyme’s last couplet, but knew why the rhyme had occurred to him in the first place. There had been the recurring dream of his room in the castle and of his mother, who had sung it to him as he lay solemnly in the tiny bed by the window of many colors. She did not sing it at bedtimes because all small boys born to the High Speech must face the dark alone, but she sang to him at naptimes and he could remember the heavy gray rainlight that shivered into rainbows on the counterpane; he could feel the coolness of the room and the heavy warmth of blankets, love for his mother and her red lips, the haunting melody of the little nonsense lyric, and her voice.
Now it came back maddeningly, like a dog chasing its own tail in his mind as he walked. All his water was gone, and he knew he was very likely a dead man. He had never expected it to come to this, and he was sorry. Since noon he had been watching his feet rather than the way ahead. Out here even the devil-grass had grown stunted and yellow. The hardpan had disintegrated in places to mere rubble. The mountains were not noticeably clearer, although sixteen days had passed since he had left the hut of the last homesteader, a loony-sane young man on the edge of the desert. He had had a bird, the gunslinger remembered, but he couldn’t remember the bird’s name.
He watched his feet move up and down like the heddles of a loom, listened to the nonsense rhyme sing itself into a pitiful garble in his mind, and wondered when he would fall down for the first time. He didn’t want to fall, even though there was no one to see him. It was a matter of pride. A gunslinger knows pride, that invisible bone that keeps the neck stiff. What hadn’t come to him from his father had been kicked into him by Cort, a boy’s gentleman if there ever was one. Cort, yar, with his red bulb of a nose and his scarred face.
He stopped and looked up suddenly. It made his head buzz and for a moment his whole body seemed to float. The mountains dreamed against the far horizon. But there was something else up ahead, something much closer. Perhaps only five miles away. He squinted at it, but his eyes were sandblasted and going glareblind. He shook his head and began to walk again. The rhyme circled and buzzed. About an hour later he fell down and skinned his hands. He looked at the tiny beads of blood on his flaked skin with disbelief. The blood looked no thinner; it looked like any blood, now dying in the air. It seemed almost as smug as the desert. He dashed the drops away, hating them blindly. Smug? Why not? The blood was not thirsty. The blood was being served. The blood was being made sacrifice unto. Blood sacrifice. All the blood needed to do was run . . . and run . . . and run.
He looked at the splotches that had landed on the hardpan and watched as they were sucked up with uncanny suddenness. How do you like that, blood? How does that suit you?
O Jesus, I’m far gone.
He got up, holding his hands to his chest, and the thing he’d seen earlier was almost in front of him, so close it made him cry out—a dust-choked crow-croak. It was a building. No, two buildings, surrounded by a fallen rail fence. The wood seemed old, fragile to the point of elvishness; it was wood being transmogrified into sand. One of the buildings had been a stable—the shape was clear and unmistakable. The other was a house, or an inn. A way station for the coach line. The tottering sand-house (the wind had crusted the wood with grit until it looked like a sand castle that the sun had beat upon at low tide and hardened to a temporary abode) cast a thin line of shadow, and someone sat in the shadow, leaning against the building. And the building seemed to lean with the burden of his weight.
Him, then. At last. The man in black.
The gunslinger stood with his hands to his chest, unaware of his declamatory posture, and gawped. But instead of the tremendous winging excitement he had expected (or perhaps fear, or awe), there was nothing but the dim, atavistic guilt for the sudden, raging hate of his own blood moments earlier and the endless ring-a-rosy of the childhood song:
. . . the rain in Spain . . .
He moved forward, drawing one gun.
. . . falls on the plain.
He came the last quarter mile at a jolting, flat-footed run, not trying to hide himself; there was nothing to hide behind. His short shadow raced him. He was not aware that his face had become a gray and dusty deathmask of exhaustion; he was aware of nothing but the figure in the shadow. It did not occur to him until later that the figure might even have been dead.
He kicked through one of the leaning fence rails (it broke in two without a sound, almost apologetically) and lunged across the dazzled and silent stable yard, bringing the gun up.
“You’re covered! You’re covered! Hands up, you whoreson, you’re—”
The figure moved restlessly and stood up. The gunslinger thought: My God, he is worn away to nothing, what’s happened to him? Because the man in black had shrunk two full feet and his hair had gone white.
He paused, struck dumb, his head buzzing tunelessly. His heart was racing at a lunatic rate and he thought, I’m dying right here—
He sucked the white-hot air into his lungs and hung his head for a moment. When he raised it again, he saw it wasn’t the man in black but a boy with sun-bleached hair, regarding him with eyes that did not even seem interested. The gunslinger stared at him blankly and then shook his head in negation. But the boy survived his refusal to believe; he was a strong delusion. One wearing blue jeans with a patch on one knee and a plain brown shirt of rough weave.
The gunslinger shook his head again and started for the stable with his head lowered, gun still in hand. He couldn’t think yet. His head was filled with motes and there was a huge, thrumming ache building in it.
The inside of the stable was silent and dark and exploding with heat. The gunslinger stared around himself with huge, floating walleyes. He made a drunken about-face and saw the boy standing in the ruined doorway, staring at him. A blade of pain slipped smoothly into his head, cutting from temple to temple, dividing his brain like an orange. He reholstered his gun, swayed, put out his hands as if to ward off phantoms, and fell over on his face.