“Look,” Jake said, pointing upward.
The gunslinger looked up and felt a twinge in his right hip. He winced. They had been in the foothills two days now, and although the waterskins were almost empty again, it didn’t matter now. There would soon be all the water they could drink.
He followed the vector of Jake’s finger upward, past the rise of the green plain to the naked and flashing cliffs and gorges above it . . . on up toward the snowcap itself.
Faint and far, nothing but a tiny dot (it might have been one of those motes that dance perpetually in front of the eyes, except for its constancy), the gunslinger beheld the man in black, moving up the slopes with deadly progress, a minuscule fly on a huge granite wall.
“Is that him?” Jake asked.
The gunslinger looked at the depersonalized mote doing its faraway acrobatics, feeling nothing but a premonition of sorrow.
“That’s him, Jake.”
“Do you think we’ll catch him?”
“Not on this side. On the other. And not if we stand here talking about it.”
“They’re so high,” Jake said. “What’s on the other side?”
“I don’t know,” the gunslinger said. “I don’t think anybody does. Maybe they did once. Come on, boy.”
They began to move upward again, sending small runnels of pebbles and sand down toward the desert that washed away behind them in a flat bake-sheet that seemed to never end. Above them, far above, the man in black moved up and up and up. It was impossible to see if he looked back. He seemed to leap across impossible gulfs, to scale sheer faces. Once or twice he disappeared, but always they saw him again, until the violet curtain of dusk shut him from their view. When they made their camp for the evening, the boy spoke little, and the gunslinger wondered if the boy knew what he himself had already intuited. He thought of Cuthbert’s face, hot, dismayed, excited. He thought of the bread. He thought of the birds. It ends this way, he thought. Again and again it ends this way. There are quests and roads that lead ever onward, and all of them end in the same place—upon the killing ground.
Except, perhaps, the road to the Tower. There ka might show its true face.
The boy, the sacrifice, his face innocent and very young in the light of their tiny fire, had fallen asleep over his beans. The gunslinger covered him with the horse blanket and then curled up to sleep himself. The boy found the oracle and it almost destroyed him.
Some thin instinct brought the gunslinger up from sleep to the velvet darkness which had fallen on them at dusk. That had been when he and Jake reached the grassy, nearly level oasis above the first rise of tumbled foothills. Even on the hardscrabble below, where they had toiled and fought for every foot in the killer sun, they had been able to hear the sound of crickets rubbing their legs seductively together in the perpetual green of willow groves above them. The gunslinger remained calm in his mind, and the boy had kept up at least the pretense of a façade, and that had made the gunslinger proud. But Jake hadn’t been able to hide the wildness in his eyes, which were white and starey, the eyes of a horse scenting water and held back from bolting only by the tenuous chain of its master’s mind; like a horse at the point where only understanding, not the spur, could hold it steady. The gunslinger could gauge the need in Jake by the madness the sounds of the crickets bred in his own body. His arms seemed to seek out shale to scrape on, and his knees seemed to beg to be ripped in tiny, maddening, salty gashes.
The sun trampled them all the way; even when it turned a swollen, feverish red with sunset, it shone perversely through the knife-cut in the hills off to their left, blinding them and making every teardrop of sweat into a prism of pain.
Then there was sawgrass: at first only yellow scrub, clinging with gruesome vitality to the bleak soil where the last of the runoff reached. Further up there was witch-grass, first sparse, then green and rank . . . then the sweet smell of real grass, mixed with timothy and shaded by the first of the dwarfed firs. There the gunslinger saw an arc of brown moving in the shadows. He drew, fired, and felled the rabbit all before Jake could begin to cry out his surprise. A moment later he had reholstered the gun.
“Here,” the gunslinger said. Up ahead the grass deepened into a jungle of green willows that was shocking after the parched sterility of the endless hardpan. There would be a spring, perhaps several of them, and it would be even cooler, but it was better out here in the open. The boy had pushed every step he could push, and there might be suckerbats in the deeper shadows of the grove. The bats might break the boy’s sleep, no matter how deep it was, and if they were vampires, neither of them might awaken . . . at least, not in this world.
The boy said, “I’ll get some wood.”
The gunslinger smiled. “No, you won’t. Sit yourself, Jake.” Whose phrase had that been? Some woman. Susan? He couldn’t remember. Time’s the thief of memory: that one he knew. That one had been Vannay’s.
The boy sat. When the gunslinger got back, Jake was asleep in the grass. A large praying mantis was performing ablutions on the springy stem of the kid’s cowlick. The gunslinger snorted laughter—the first in gods knew how long—and set the fire and went after water.
The willow jungle was deeper than he had suspected, and confusing in the failing light. But he found a spring, richly guarded by frogs and peepers. He filled one of their waterskins . . . and paused. The sounds that filled the night awoke an uneasy sensuality in him, a feeling that not even Allie, the woman he had bedded with in Tull, had been able to bring out—too much of his time with Allie had been business. He chalked it up to the sudden blinding change from the desert. After all those miles of bleak hardpan, the softness of the dark seemed nearly decadent.
He returned to the camp and skinned the rabbit while water boiled over the fire. Mixed with the last of their canned veg, the rabbit made an excellent stew. He woke Jake and watched him as he ate, bleary but ravenous.
“We stay here tomorrow,” the gunslinger said.
“But that man you’re after . . . that priest . . .”
“He’s no priest. And don’t worry. He’ll keep.”
“How do you know that?”
The gunslinger could only shake his head. The intuition was strong in him . . . but it was not a good intuition.
After the meal, he rinsed the cans from which they had eaten (marveling again at his own water extravagance), and when he turned around, Jake was asleep again. The gunslinger felt the now-familiar rising and falling in his chest that he could only identify with Cuthbert. Cuthbert had been Roland’s own age, but he had seemed so much younger.
His cigarette drooped toward the grass, and he tossed it into the fire. He looked at it, the clear yellow burn so different, so much cleaner, from the way the devil-grass burned. The air was wonderfully cool, and he lay down with his back to the fire.
Far away, through the gash that led the way into the mountains, he heard the thick mouth of the perpetual thunder. He slept. And dreamed. Susan Delgado, his beloved, was dying before his eyes.
He watched, his arms held by two villagers on each side, his neck dog-caught in a huge, rusty iron collar. This wasn’t the way it had happened—he hadn’t even been there—but dreams had their own logic, didn’t they?
She was dying. He could smell her burning hair, could hear their cries of Charyou tree. And he could see the color of his own madness. Susan, lovely girl at the window, horseman’s daughter. How she had flown across the Drop, her shadow that of horse and girl merged, a fabulous creature out of an old story, something wild and free! How they had flown together in the corn! Now they were flinging cornhusks at her and the husks caught fire even before they caught in her hair. Charyou tree, charyou tree, they cried, these enemies of light and love, and somewhere the witch was cackling. Rhea, the witch’s name had been, and Susan was turning black in the flames, her skin cracking open, and— And what was she calling?
“The boy!” she was screaming. “Roland, the boy!”
He whirled, pulling his captors with him. The collar ripped at his neck and he heard the hitching, strangled sounds that were coming from his own throat. There was a sickish-sweet smell of barbecuing meat on the air.
The boy was looking down at him from a window high above the funeral pyre, the same window where Susan, who had taught him to be a man, had once sat and sung the old songs: “Hey Jude” and “Ease on Down the Road” and “Careless Love.” He looked out from the window like the statue of an alabaster saint in a cathedral. His eyes were marble. A spike had been driven through Jake’s forehead.
The gunslinger felt the strangling, ripping scream that signaled the beginning of his lunacy pull up from the bottom of his belly.
“Nnnnnnnnnn—” Roland grunted a cry as he felt the fire singe him. He sat bolt upright in the dark, still feeling the dream of Mejis around him, strangling him like the collar he’d worn. In his twistings and turnings he had thrown one hand against the dying coals of the fire. He put the hand to his face, feeling the dream flee, leaving only the stark picture of Jake, plaster-white, a saint for demons.
He glared around at the mystic darkness of the willow grove, both guns out and ready. His eyes were red loopholes in the last glow from the fire.
The gunslinger was up and on the run. A bitter circle of moon had risen and he could follow the boy’s track in the dew. He ducked under the first of the willows, splashed through the spring, and legged up the far bank, skidding in the dampness (even now his body could relish it). Willow withes slapped at his face. The trees were thicker here, and the moon was blotted out. Tree-trunks rose in lurching shadows. The grass, now knee-high, caressed him, as if pleading with him to slow down, to enjoy the cool. To enjoy the life. Half-rotted dead branches reached for his shins, his cojones. He paused for a moment, lifting his head and scenting at the air. A ghost of a breeze helped him. The boy did not smell good, of course; neither of them did. The gunslinger’s nostrils flared like those of an ape. The younger, lighter odor of the boy’s sweat was faint, oily, unmistakable. He crashed over a deadfall of grass and bramble and downed branches, sprinted through a tunnel of overhanging willow and sumac. Moss struck his shoulders like flabby corpse-hands. Some clung in sighing gray tendrils.
He clawed through a last barricade of willows and came to a clearing that looked up at the stars and the highest peak of the range, gleaming skull-white at an impossible altitude. There was a ring of black standing stones which looked like some sort of surreal animal-trap in the moonlight. In the center was a table of stone . . . an altar. Very old, rising out of the ground on a thick arm of basalt.
The boy stood before it, trembling back and forth. His hands shook at his sides as if infused with static electricity. The gunslinger called his name sharply, and Jake responded with that inarticulate sound of negation. The faint smear of face, almost hidden by the boy’s left shoulder, looked both terrified and exalted. And there was something else.
The gunslinger stepped inside the ring and Jake screamed, recoiling and throwing up his arms. Now his face could be seen clearly. The gunslinger read fear and terror at war with some excruciating pleasure.
The gunslinger felt it touch him—the spirit of the oracle, the succubus. His loins were suddenly filled with light, a light that was soft yet hard. He felt his head twisting, his tongue thickening and becoming sensitive to even the spittle that coated it.
He didn’t think about what he was doing when he pulled the half-rotted jawbone from the pocket where he had carried it since he found it in the lair of the speaking-demon at the way station. He didn’t think, but it had never frightened him to operate on pure instinct. That had ever been the best and truest place for him. He held the jawbone’s frozen, prehistoric grin up before his eyes, holding his other arm out stiffly, first and last fingers poked out in the ancient forked sign, the ward against the evil eye.
The current of sensuality was whipped away from him like a drape.
Jake screamed again.
The gunslinger walked to him and held the jawbone in front of Jake’s warring eyes.
“See this, Jake—see it very well.”
What came in response was a wet sound of agony. The boy tried to pull his gaze away, could not. For a moment it seemed that he might be pulled apart—mentally if not physically. Then, suddenly, both eyes rolled up to the whites. Jake collapsed. His body struck the earth limply, one hand almost touching the squat basalt arm that supported the altar. The gunslinger dropped to one knee and picked him up. He was amazingly light, as dehydrated as a November leaf from their long walk through the desert.
Around him Roland could feel the presence that dwelt in the circle of stones whirring with a jealous anger—its prize was being taken from it. Once the gunslinger passed out of the circle, the sense of frustrated jealousy faded quickly. He carried Jake back to their camp. By the time they got there, the boy’s twitching unconsciousness had become deep sleep.
The gunslinger paused for a moment above the gray ruin of the fire. The moonlight on Jake’s face reminded him again of a church saint, alabaster purity all unknown. He hugged the kid and put a dry kiss on his cheek, knowing that he loved him. Well, maybe that wasn’t quite right. Maybe the truth was that he’d loved the kid from the first moment he’d seen him (as he had Susan Delgado), and was only now allowing himself to recognize the fact. For it was a fact.
And it seemed that he could almost feel the laughter from the man in black, someplace far above them.