When he woke up he was on his back, and there was a pile of light, odorless hay beneath his head. The boy had not been able to move him, but he had made him reasonably comfortable. And he was cool. He looked down at himself and saw that his shirt was dark and wet. He licked at his face and tasted water. He blinked at it. His tongue seemed to swell in his mouth.
The boy was hunkered down beside him. When he saw the gunslinger’s eyes were open, he reached behind him and gave the gunslinger a dented tin can filled with water. He grasped it with trembling hands and allowed himself to drink a little—just a little. When that was down and sitting in his belly, he drank a little more. Then he spilled the rest over his face and made shocked blowing noises. The boy’s pretty lips curved in a solemn little smile.
“Would you want something to eat, sir?”
“Not yet,” the gunslinger said. There was still a sick ache in his head from the sunstroke, and the water sat uneasily in his stomach, as if it did not know where to go. “Who are you?”
“My name is John Chambers. You can call me Jake. I have a friend—well, sort of a friend, she works for us—who calls me ’Bama sometimes, but you can call me Jake.”
The gunslinger sat up, and the sick ache became hard and immediate. He leaned forward and lost a brief struggle with his stomach. “There’s more,” Jake said. He took the can and walked toward the rear of the stable. He paused and smiled back at the gunslinger uncertainly. The gunslinger nodded at him and then put his head down and propped it with his hands. The boy was well-made, handsome, perhaps ten or eleven. There had been a shadow of fear on his face, but that was all right; the gunslinger would have trusted him far less if the boy hadn’t shown fear.
A strange, thumping hum began at the rear of the stable. The gunslinger raised his head alertly, hands going to the butts of his guns. The sound lasted for perhaps fifteen seconds and then quit. The boy came back with the can—filled now.
The gunslinger drank sparingly again, and this time it was a little better. The ache in his head was fading.
“I didn’t know what to do with you when you fell down,” Jake said. “For a couple of seconds there, I thought you were going to shoot me.”
“Maybe I was. I thought you were somebody else.”
The gunslinger looked up sharply.
The boy studied him, frowning. “He camped in the yard. I was in the house over there. Or maybe it was a depot. I didn’t like him, so I didn’t come out. He came in the night and went on the next day. I would have hidden from you, but I was sleeping when you came.” He looked darkly over the gunslinger’s head. “I don’t like people. They fuck me up.” “What did he look like?”
The boy shrugged. “Like a priest. He was wearing black things.”
“A hood and a cassock?”
“What’s a cassock?”
“A robe. Like a dress.”
The boy nodded. “That’s about right.”
The gunslinger leaned forward, and something in his face made the boy recoil a little. “How long ago? Tell me, for your father’s sake.”
“I . . . I . . .”
Patiently, the gunslinger said, “I’m not going to hurt you.”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember time. Every day is the same.”
For the first time the gunslinger wondered consciously how the boy had come to this place, with dry and man-killing leagues of desert all around it. But he would not make it his concern, not yet, at least. “Make your best guess. Long ago?”
“No. Not long. I haven’t been here long.”
The fire lit in him again. He snatched up the can and drank from it with hands that trembled the smallest bit. A fragment of the cradle song recurred, but this time, instead of his mother’s face, he saw the scarred face of Alice, who had been his jilly in the now-defunct town of Tull. “A week? Two? Three?”
The boy looked at him distractedly. “Yes.”
“A week. Or two.” He looked aside, blushing a little. “Three poops ago, that’s the only way I can measure things now. He didn’t even drink. I thought he might be the ghost of a priest, like in this movie I saw once, only Zorro figured out he wasn’t a priest at all, or a ghost, either. He was just a banker who wanted some land because there was gold on it. Mrs. Shaw took me to see that movie. It was in Times Square.”
None of this made any sense to the gunslinger, so he did not comment on it.
“I was scared,” the boy said. “I’ve been scared almost all the time.” His face quivered like crystal on the edge of the ultimate, destructive high note. “He didn’t even build a fire. He just sat there. I don’t even know if he went to sleep.”
Close! Closer than he had ever been, by the gods! In spite of his extreme dehydration, his hands felt faintly moist; greasy.
“There’s some dried meat,” the boy said.
“All right.” The gunslinger nodded. “Good.”
The boy got up to fetch it, his knees popping slightly. He made a fine straight figure. The desert had not yet sapped him. His arms were thin, but the skin, although tanned, had not dried and cracked. He’s got juice, the gunslinger thought. Mayhap some sand in his craw, as well, or he would have taken one of my guns and shot me right where I lay.
Or perhaps the boy simply hadn’t thought of it.
The gunslinger drank from the can again. Sand in his craw or not, he didn’t come from this place.
Jake came back with a pile of dried jerky on what looked like a sun-scoured breadboard. The meat was tough, stringy, and salty enough to make the cankered lining of the gunslinger’s mouth sing. He ate and drank until he felt logy, and then settled back. The boy ate only a little, picking at the dark strands with an odd delicacy.
The gunslinger regarded him, and the boy looked back at him candidly enough. “Where did you come from, Jake?” he asked finally.
“I don’t know.” The boy frowned. “I did know. I knew when I came here, but it’s all fuzzy now, like a bad dream when you wake up. I have lots of bad dreams. Mrs. Shaw used to say it was because I watched too many horror movies on Channel Eleven.”
“What’s a channel?” A wild idea occurred to him. “Is it like a beam?”
“I—” The boy touched his forehead. “Pictures.”
“Did somebody tote you here? This Mrs. Shaw?”
“No,” the boy said. “I just was here.” “Who is Mrs. Shaw?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why did she call you ’Bama?”
“I don’t remember.”
“You’re not making any sense,” the gunslinger said flatly.
Quite suddenly the boy was on the verge of tears. “I can’t help it. I was just here. If you asked me about TV and channels yesterday, I bet I still could have remembered! Tomorrow I probably won’t even remember I’m Jake—not unless you tell me, and you won’t be here, will you? You’re going to go away and I’ll starve because you ate up almost all my food. I didn’t ask to be here. I don’t like it. It’s spooky.”
“Don’t feel so sorry for yourself. Make do.”
“I didn’t ask to be here,” the boy repeated with bewildered defiance.
The gunslinger ate another piece of the meat, chewing the salt out of it before swallowing. The boy had become part of it, and the gunslinger was convinced he told the truth—he had not asked for it. It was too bad. He himself . . . he had asked for it. But he had not asked for the game to become this dirty. He had not asked to turn his guns on the townsfolk of Tull; had not asked to shoot Allie, with her sadly pretty face at the end marked by the secret she had finally asked to be let in on, using that word, that nineteen, like a key in a lock; had not asked to be faced with a choice between duty and flat-out murder. It was not fair to ring in innocent bystanders and make them speak lines they didn’t understand on a strange stage. Allie, he thought, Allie was at least part of this world, in her own self-illusory way. But this boy . . . this God-damned boy . . .
“Tell me what you can remember,” he told Jake.
“It’s only a little. It doesn’t seem to make any sense anymore.”
“Tell me. Maybe I can pick up the sense.”
The boy thought about how to begin. He thought about it very hard. “There was a place . . . the one before this one. A high place with lots of rooms and a patio where you could look at tall buildings and water. There was a statue that stood in the water.”
“A statue in the water?”
“Yes. A lady with a crown and a torch and . . . I think . . . a book.”
“Are you making this up?”
“I guess I must be,” the boy said hopelessly. “There were things to ride in on the streets. Big ones and little ones. The big ones were blue and white. The little ones were yellow. A lot of yellow ones. I walked to school. There were cement paths beside the streets. Windows to look in and more statues wearing clothes. The statues sold the clothes. I know it sounds crazy, but the statues sold the clothes.”
The gunslinger shook his head and looked for a lie on the boy’s face. He saw none. “I walked to school,” the boy repeated doggedly. “And I had a”—his eyes tilted closed and his lips moved gropingly—“a brown . . . book . . . bag. I carried a lunch. And I wore”—the groping again, agonized groping—“a tie.”
“I don’t know.” The boy’s fingers made a slow, unconscious clinching motion at his throat, one the gunslinger associated with hanging. “I don’t know. It’s just all gone.” And he looked away.
“May I put you to sleep?” the gunslinger asked.
“I’m not sleepy.”
“I can make you sleepy, and I can make you remember.”
Doubtfully, Jake asked, “How could you do that?”
The gunslinger removed one of the shells from his gunbelt and twirled it in his fingers. The movement was dexterous, as flowing as oil. The shell cartwheeled effortlessly from thumb and index to index and second, to second and ring, to ring and pinky. It popped out of sight and reappeared; seemed to float briefly, then reversed. The shell walked across the gunslinger’s fingers. The fingers themselves marched as his feet had marched on his last miles to this place. The boy watched, his initial doubt first replaced with plain delight, then by raptness, then by dawning blankness as he opened. His eyes slipped shut. The shell danced back and forth. Jake’s eyes opened again, caught the steady, limpid movement between the gunslinger’s fingers a little while longer, and then they closed once more. The gunslinger continued the howken, but Jake’s eyes did not open again. The boy breathed with slow and steady calmness. Did this have to be part of it? Yes. It did. There was a certain cold beauty to it, like the lacy frettings that fringe hard blue ice-packs. He once more seemed to hear his mother singing, not the nonsense about the rain in Spain this time, but sweeter nonsense, coming from a great distance as he rocked on the rim of sleep: Baby-bunting, baby dear, baby bring your basket here.
Not for the first time the gunslinger tasted the smooth, loden taste of soul-sickness. The shell in his fingers, manipulated with such unknown grace, was suddenly horrific, the spoor of a monster. He dropped it into his palm, made a fist, and squeezed it with painful force. Had it exploded, in that moment he would have rejoiced at the destruction of his talented hand, for its only true talent was murder. There had always been murder in the world, but telling himself so was no comfort. There was murder, there was rape, there were unspeakable practices, and all of them were for the good, the bloody good, the bloody myth, for the grail, for the Tower. Ah, the Tower stood somewhere in the middle of things (so they did say), rearing its black-gray bulk to the sky, and in his desert-scoured ears, the gunslinger heard the faint sweet sound of his mother’s voice: Chussit, chissit, chassit, bring enough to fill your basket.
He brushed the song, and the sweetness of the song, aside. “Where are you?” he asked.