Jake, calling him: that was how the gunslinger awoke. He’d tied Jake firmly to one of the tough bushes that grew nearby, and the boy was hungry and upset. By the sun, it was almost nine-thirty.
“Why’d you tie me up?” Jake asked indignantly as the gunslinger loosened the thick knots in the blanket. “I wasn’t going to run away!”
“You did run away,” the gunslinger said, and the expression on Jake’s face made him smile. “I had to go out and get you. You were sleepwalking.”
“I was?” Jake looked at him suspiciously. “I never did anything like that be—”
The gunslinger suddenly produced the jawbone and held it in front of Jake’s face. Jake flinched away from it, grimacing and raising his arm.
Jake nodded, bewildered. “What happened?”
“We don’t have time to palaver now. I have to go off for a while. I may be gone the whole day. So listen to me, boy. It’s important. If sunset comes and I’m not back—”
Fear flashed on Jake’s face. “You’re leaving me!”
The gunslinger only looked at him.
“No,” Jake said after a moment. “I guess if you were going to leave me, you already would have.”
“That’s using your head. Now listen, and hear me very well. I want you to stay here while I’m gone. Right here in camp. Don’t stray, even if it seems like the best idea in the world. And if you feel strange—funny in any way—you pick up this bone and hold it in your hands.”
Hate and disgust crossed Jake’s face, mixed with bewilderment. “I couldn’t. I . . . I just couldn’t.”
“You can. You may have to. Especially after midday. It’s important. You may feel pukey or headachey when you first lay hold of it, but that’ll pass. Do you understand?”
“And will you do what I say?”
“Yes, but why do you have to go away?” Jake burst out.
“I just do.”
The gunslinger caught another fascinating glimpse of the steel that lay under the boy’s surface, as enigmatic as the story he had told about coming from a city where the buildings were so tall they actually scraped the sky. It wasn’t Cuthbert the boy reminded him of so much as his other close friend, Alain. Alain had been quiet, in no way prone to Bert’s grandstanding quackery, and he’d been dependable and afraid of nothing. “All right,” Jake said.
The gunslinger laid the jawbone carefully on the ground next to the ruins of the fire, where it grinned up through the grass like some eroded fossil that has seen the light of day after a night of five thousand years. Jake wouldn’t look at it. His face was pale and miserable. The gunslinger wondered if it would profit them for him to put the boy to sleep and question him, then decided there would be little gain. He knew well enough that the spirit of the stone circle was surely a demon, and very likely an oracle as well. A demon with no shape, only a kind of unformed sexual glare with the eye of prophecy. He wondered briefly if it might not be the soul of Sylvia Pittston, the giant woman whose religious huckstering had led to the final showdown in Tull . . . but no. Not her. The stones in the circle were ancient. Sylvia Pittston was a jilly-come-lately compared to the thing that made its den here. It was old . . . and sly. But the gunslinger knew the forms of speaking quite well and did not think the boy would have to use the jawbone mojo. The voice and mind of the oracle would be more than occupied with him. The gunslinger needed to know things, in spite of the risk . . . and the risk was high. Yet for both Jake and himself, he needed desperately to know.
The gunslinger opened his tobacco poke and pawed through it, pushing the dry strands of leaf aside until he came to a minuscule object wrapped in a fragment of white paper. He rolled it between fingers that would all too soon be gone and looked absently up at the sky. Then he unwrapped it and held the contents—a tiny white pill with edges that had been much worn with traveling—in his hand.
Jake looked at it curiously. “What’s that?”
The gunslinger uttered a short laugh. “The story Cort used to tell us was that the Old Gods pissed over the desert and made mescaline.”
Jake only looked puzzled.
“This is a drug,” the gunslinger said. “But not one that puts you to sleep. One that wakes you up all the way for a little while.”
“Like LSD,” the boy agreed instantly and then looked puzzled.
“I don’t know,” Jake said. “It just popped out. I think it came from . . . you know, before.”
The gunslinger nodded, but he was doubtful. He had never heard of mescaline referred to as LSD, not even in Marten’s old books.
“Will it hurt you?” Jake asked.
“It never has,” the gunslinger said, conscious of the evasion.
“I don’t like it.”
The gunslinger squatted in front of the waterskin, took a mouthful, and swallowed the pill. As always, he felt an immediate reaction in his mouth: it seemed overloaded with saliva. He sat down before the dead fire.
“When does something happen to you?” Jake asked.
“Not for a little while. Be quiet.”
So Jake was quiet, watching with open suspicion as the gunslinger went calmly about the ritual of cleaning his guns.
He reholstered them and said, “Your shirt, Jake. Take it off and give it to me.”
Jake pulled his faded shirt reluctantly over his head, revealing the skinny stack of his ribs, and gave it to Roland.
The gunslinger produced a needle that had been threaded into the side-seam of his jeans, and thread from an empty cartridge-loop in his gunbelt. He began to sew up a long rip in one of the sleeves of the boy’s shirt. As he finished and handed the shirt back, he felt the mesc beginning to take hold—there was a tightening in his stomach and a feeling that all the muscles in his body were being cranked up a notch.
“I have to go,” he said, getting up. “It’s time.”
The boy half rose, his face a shadow of concern, and then he settled back. “Be careful,” he said. “Please.”
“Remember the jawbone,” the gunslinger said. He put his hand on Jake’s head as he went by and tousled the corn-colored hair. The gesture startled him into a short laugh. Jake watched after him with a troubled smile until he was gone into the willow jungle. The gunslinger walked deliberately toward the circle of stones, pausing long enough to get a cool drink from the spring. He could see his own reflection in a tiny pool edged with moss and lilypads, and he looked at himself for a moment, as fascinated as Narcissus. The mind-reaction was beginning to settle in, slowing down his chain of thought by seeming to increase the connotations of every idea and every bit of sensory input. Things began to take on weight and thickness that had been heretofore invisible. He paused, getting to his feet again, and looked through the tangled snarl of willows. Sunlight slanted through in a golden, dusty bar, and he watched the interplay of motes and tiny flying things for a bit before going on.
The drug had often disturbed him: his ego was too strong (or perhaps just too simple) to enjoy being eclipsed and peeled back, made a target for more sensitive emotions—they tickled at him (and sometimes maddened him) like the touch of a cat’s whiskers. But this time he felt fairly calm. That was good.
He stepped into the clearing and walked straight into the circle. He stood, letting his mind run free. Yes, it was coming harder now, faster. The grass screamed green at him; it seemed that if he bent over and rubbed his hands in it he would stand up with green paint all over his fingers and palms. He resisted a puckish urge to try the experiment.
But there was no voice from the oracle. No stirring, sexual or otherwise.
He went to the altar, stood beside it for a moment. Coherent thought was now almost impossible. His teeth felt strange in his head, tiny tombstones set in pink moist earth. The world held too much light. He climbed up on the altar and lay back. His mind was becoming a jungle full of strange thought-plants that he had never seen or suspected before, a willow-jungle that had grown up around a mescaline spring. The sky was water and he hung suspended over it. The thought gave him a vertigo that seemed faraway and unimportant.
A line of old poetry occurred to him, not a nursery voice now, no; his mother had feared the drugs and the necessity of them (as she had feared Cort and the need for this beater of boys); this verse came from the Manni-folk to the north of the desert, a clan of them still living among machines that usually didn’t work . . . and which sometimes ate the men when they did. The lines played again and again, reminding him (in an unconnected way that was typical of the mescaline rush) of snow falling in a globe he had owned as a child, mystic and half fantastical:
Beyond the reach of human range
A drop of hell, a touch of strange . . .
The trees which overhung the altar contained faces. He watched them with abstracted fascination: Here was a dragon, green and twitching, here a wood-nymph with beckoning branch arms, here a living skull overgrown with slime. Faces. Faces.
The grasses of the clearing suddenly whipped and bent.
I come. I come.
Vague stirrings in his flesh. How far I have come, he thought. From lying with Susan in sweet grass on the Drop to this.
She pressed over him, a body made of the wind, a breast of fragrant jasmine, rose, and honeysuckle.
“Make your prophecy,” he said. “Tell me what I need to know.” His mouth felt full of metal.
A sigh. A faint sound of weeping. The gunslinger’s genitals felt drawn and hard. Over him and beyond the faces in the leaves, he could see the mountains—hard and brutal and full of teeth.
The body moved against him, struggled with him. He felt his hands curl into fists. She had sent him a vision of Susan. It was Susan above him, lovely Susan Delgado, waiting for him in an abandoned drover’s hut on the Drop with her hair spilled down her back and over her shoulders. He tossed his head, but her face followed.
Jasmine, rose, honeysuckle, old hay . . . the smell of love. Love me.
“Speak prophecy,” he said. “Speak truth.”
Please, the oracle wept. Don’t be cold. It’s always so cold here—
Hands slipping over his flesh, manipulating, lighting him on fire. Pulling him. Drawing. A perfumed black crevice. Wet and warm—
No. Dry. Cold. Sterile. Have a touch of mercy, gunslinger. Ah, please, I cry your favor! Mercy!
Would you have mercy on the boy?
What boy? I know no boy. It’s not boys I need. O please.
Jasmine, rose, honeysuckle. Dry hay with its ghost of summer clover. Oil decanted from ancient urns. A riot for flesh.
“After,” he said. “If what you tell me is useful.”
Now. Please. Now.
He let his mind coil out at her, the antithesis of emotion. The body that hung over him froze and seemed to scream. There was a brief, vicious tug-of-war between his temples—his mind was the rope, gray and fibrous. For long moments there was no sound but the quiet hush of his breathing and the faint breeze which made the green faces in the trees shift, wink, and grimace. No bird sang.
Her hold loosened. Again there was the sound of sobbing. It would have to be quick, or she would leave him. To stay now meant attenuation; perhaps her own kind of death. Already he felt her chilling, drawing away to leave the circle of stones. Wind rippled the grass in tortured patterns.
“Prophecy,” he said, and then an even bleaker noun. “Truth.”
A weeping, tired sigh. He could almost have granted the mercy she begged, but—there was Jake. He would have found Jake dead or insane if he had been any later last night.
What she asked was dangerous, but also probably necessary. The gunslinger turned his eyes up to the faces in the leaves. A play was being enacted there for his amusement. Worlds rose and fell before him. Empires were built across shining sands where forever machines toiled in abstract electronic frenzies. Empires declined, fell, rose again. Wheels that had spun like silent liquid moved more slowly, began to squeak, began to scream, stopped. Sand choked the stainless steel gutters of concentric streets below dark skies full of stars like beds of cold jewels. And through it all, a dying wind of change blew, bringing with it the cinnamon smell of late October. The gunslinger watched as the world moved on.
Three. This is the number of your fate.
Yes, three is mystic. Three stands at the heart of your quest. Another number comes later. Now the number is three.
“We see in part, and thus is the mirror of prophecy darkened.”
Tell me what you can.