One of them, glowing hardly at all, suddenly reached for the boy with rubber boogeyman arms. Eyes that ate up half the mutie’s head rolled wetly.
Jake screamed again and turned to struggle.
The gunslinger fired without allowing himself to think before his spotty vision could betray his hands into a terrible quiver; the two heads were only inches apart. It was the mutie who fell.
Jake threw rocks wildly. The mutants milled just outside the invisible line of trespass, closing a little at a time, now very close. Others had caught up, swelling their number.
“All right,” the gunslinger said. “Get on. Quick.”
When the boy moved, the mutants came at them. Jake was over the side and scrambling to his feet; the gunslinger was already pumping again, all out. Both guns were holstered now. They must run. It was their only chance.
Strange hands slapped the metal plane of the car’s surface. The boy was holding his belt with both hands now, his face pressed tightly into the small of the gunslinger’s back.
A group of them ran onto the tracks, their faces full of that mindless, casual anticipation. The gunslinger was full of adrenaline; the car was flying along the tracks into the darkness. They struck the four or five pitiful hulks full force. They flew like rotten bananas struck from the stem.
On and on, into the soundless, flying, banshee darkness.
After an age, the boy raised his face into the made wind, dreading and yet needing to know. The ghost of gunflashes still lingered on his retinas. There was nothing to see but the darkness and nothing to hear but the rumble of the river.
“They’re gone,” the boy said, suddenly fearing an end to the tracks in the darkness, and the wounding crash as they jumped the rails and plunged to twisted ruin. He had ridden in cars; once his humorless father had driven at ninety on the New Jersey Turnpike and had been stopped by a cop who ignored the twenty Elmer Chambers offered with his license and gave him a ticket anyway. But he had never ridden like this, with the wind and the blindness and the terrors behind and ahead, with the sound of the river like a chuckling voice—the voice of the man in black. The gunslinger’s arms were pistons in a lunatic human factory.
“They’re gone,” the boy said timidly, the words ripped from his mouth by the wind. “You can slow down now. We left them behind.”
But the gunslinger did not hear. They careened onward into the strange dark.
They went on for three “days” without incident.
During the fourth period of waking (halfway through? three-quarters? they didn’t know—knew only that they weren’t tired enough yet to stop) there was a sharp thump beneath them; the handcar swayed, and their bodies immediately leaned to the right against gravity as the rails took a gradual turn to the left.
There was a light ahead—a glow so faint and alien that it seemed at first to be a totally new element, not earth, air, fire, nor water. It had no color and could only be discerned by the fact that they had regained their hands and faces in a dimension beyond that of touch. Their eyes had become so light-sensitive that they noticed the glow more than five miles before they approached its source.
“The end,” the boy said tightly. “It’s the end.”
“No.” The gunslinger spoke with odd assurance. “It isn’t.”
And it was not. They reached light but not day.
As they approached the source of the glow, they saw for the first time that the rock wall to the left had fallen away and their tracks had been joined by others which crossed in a complex spiderweb. The light laid them in burnished vectors. On some of them there were dark boxcars, passenger coaches, a stage that had been adapted to rails. They made the gunslinger nervous, like ghost galleons trapped in an underground Sargasso.
The light grew stronger, hurting their eyes a little, but growing slowly enough to allow them to adapt. They came from dark to light like divers coming up from deep fathoms in slow stages.
Ahead, drawing nearer, was a huge hangar stretching up into the dark. Cut into it, showing yellow squares of light, were a series of perhaps twenty-four entranceways, growing from the size of toy windows to a height of twenty feet as they drew closer. They passed inside through one of the middle ways. Written above were a series of characters, in various languages, the gunslinger presumed. He was astounded to find that he could read the last one; it was an ancient root of the High Speech itself and said:
TRACK 10 TO SURFACE AND POINTS WEST
The light inside was brighter; the tracks met and merged through a series of switchings. Here some of the traffic lanterns still worked, flashing eternal reds and greens and ambers.
They rolled between the rising stone piers caked black with the passage of thousands of vehicles, and then they were in some kind of central terminal. The gunslinger let the handcar coast slowly to a stop, and they peered around.
“It’s like a subway,” the boy said.
“Never mind. You wouldn’t know what I was talking about. I don’t even know what I’m talking about, not anymore.”
The boy climbed up onto the cracked cement. They looked at silent, deserted booths where newspapers and books had once been traded or sold; a bootery; a weapon shop (the gunslinger, suddenly feverish with excitement, saw revolvers and rifles; closer inspection showed that their barrels had been filled with lead; he did, however, pick out a bow, which he slung over his back, and a quiver of almost useless, badly weighted arrows); a women’s apparel shop. Somewhere a converter was turning the air over and over, as it had for thousands of years—but perhaps would not for much longer. It had a grating noise somewhere in its cycle which served to remind that perpetual motion, even under strictly controlled conditions, was still a fool’s dream. The air had a mechanized taste. The boy’s shoes and the gunslinger’s boots made flat echoes.
The boy cried out: “Hey! Hey . . .”
The gunslinger turned around and went to him. The boy was standing, transfixed, at the book stall. Inside, sprawled in the far corner, was a mummy. It was wearing a blue uniform with gold piping—a trainman’s uniform, by the look. There was an ancient, perfectly preserved newspaper on the dead thing’s lap, and it crumbled to dust when the gunslinger touched it. The mummy’s face was like an old, shriveled apple. Cautiously, the gunslinger touched the cheek. There was a small puff of dust. When it cleared, they were able to look through the flesh and into the mummy’s mouth. A gold tooth twinkled there.
“Gas,” the gunslinger murmured. “The old people made a gas that would do this. Or so Vannay told us.”
“The one who taught from books.”
“I bet these old people fought wars with it,” the boy said darkly. “Killed other old people with it.”
“I’m sure you’re right.”
There were perhaps a dozen other mummies. All but two or three were wearing the blue and gold ornamental uniforms. The gunslinger supposed that the gas had been used when the place was empty of most incoming and outgoing traffic. Perhaps once in the dim ago, the station had been a military objective of some long-gone army and cause.
The thought depressed him.
“We better go on,” he said, and started toward Track 10 and the handcar again. But the boy stood rebelliously behind him.
The gunslinger turned back, surprised.
The boy’s face was twisted and trembling. “You won’t get what you want until I’m dead. I’ll take my chances by myself.”
The gunslinger nodded noncommittally, hating himself for what he was going to do. “Okay, Jake,” he said mildly. “Long days, pleasant nights.” He turned around, walked across to the stone piers, leaped easily down onto the handcar.
“You made a deal with someone!” the boy screamed after him. “I know you did!”
The gunslinger, not replying, carefully put the bow in front of the T-post rising out of the handcar’s floor, out of harm’s way.
The boy’s fists were clenched, his features drawn in agony. How easily you bluff this young boy, the gunslinger told himself. Again and again his wonderful intuition—his touch—has led him to this point, and again and again you have led him on past it. And how difficult could it be—after all, he has no friends but you.
In a sudden, simple thought (almost a vision) it came to him that all he had to do was give it over, turn around, take the boy with him, and make him the center of a new force. The Tower did not have to be obtained in this humiliating, nose-rubbing way, did it? Let his quest resume after the boy had a growth of years, when the two of them could cast the man in black aside like a cheap wind-up toy.
Surely, he thought cynically. Surely.
He knew with sudden coldness that turning backward would mean death for both of them—death or worse: entombment with the Slow Muties behind them. Decay of all the faculties. With, perhaps, the guns of his father living long after both of them, kept in rotten splendor as totems not unlike the unforgotten gas pump.
Show some guts, he told himself falsely.
He reached for the handle and began to pump it. The handcar moved away from the stone piers.
The boy screamed: “Wait!” And began running on the diagonal, toward where the handcar would emerge nearer the darkness ahead. The gunslinger had an impulse to speed up, to leave the boy alone yet at least with an uncertainty.
Instead, he caught him as he leaped. The heart beneath the thin shirt thrummed and fluttered as Jake clung to him.
The end was very close now. The sound of the river had become very loud, filling even their dreams with its thunder. The gunslinger, more as a whim than anything else, let the boy pump them ahead while he shot a number of the bad arrows, tethered by fine white lengths of thread, into the dark.
The bow was also very bad, incredibly preserved but with a terrible pull and aim despite that, and the gunslinger knew nothing would improve it. Even re-stringing would not help the tired wood. The arrows would not fly far into the dark, but the last one he sent out came back wet and slick. The gunslinger only shrugged when the boy asked him how far to the water, but privately he didn’t think the arrow could have traveled more than sixty yards from the rotted bow—and lucky to get that far.
And still the river’s thunder grew louder, closer.
During the third waking period after the station, a spectral radiance began to grow again. They had entered a long tunnel of some weird phosphorescent rock, and the wet walls glittered and twinkled with thousands of minute starbursts. The boy called them fot-suls. They saw things in a kind of eerie, horror-house surreality.
The brute sound of the river was channeled to them by the confining rock, magnified in its own natural amplifier. Yet the sound remained oddly constant, even as they approached the crossing point the gunslinger was sure lay ahead, because the walls were widening, drawing back. The angle of their ascent became more pronounced.
The tracks arrowed through the new light. To the gunslinger the clumps of fot-suls looked like the captive tubes of swamp gas sometimes sold for a pretty at the Feast of Reaptide fair; to the boy they looked like endless streamers of neon tubing. But in its glow they could both see that the rock that had enclosed them so long ended up ahead in ragged twin peninsulas that pointed toward a gulf of darkness—the chasm over the river.
The tracks continued out and over that unknowable drop, supported by a trestle aeons old. And beyond, what seemed an incredible distance, was a tiny pinprick of light, not phosphorescence or fluorescence, but the hard, true light of day. It was as tiny as a needle-prick in a dark cloth, yet weighted with frightful meaning.
“Stop,” the boy said. “Stop for a minute. Please.”
Unquestioning, the gunslinger let the handcar coast to a stop. The sound of the river was a steady, booming roar, coming from beneath and ahead. The artificial glow from the wet rock was suddenly hateful. For the first time he felt a claustrophobic hand touch him, and the urge to get out, to get free of this living burial, was strong and nearly undeniable.
“We’ll go on,” the boy said. “Is that what he wants? For us to drive the handcar out over . . . that . . . and fall down?” The gunslinger knew it was not but said: “I don’t know what he wants.”
They got down and approached the lip of the drop carefully. The stone beneath their feet continued to rise until, with a sudden, angling drop, the floor fell away from the tracks and the tracks continued alone, across blackness.
The gunslinger dropped to his knees and peered down. He could dimly make out a complex, nearly incredible webwork of steel girders and struts, disappearing down toward the roar of the river, all in support of the graceful arch of the tracks across the void.
In his mind’s eye he could imagine the work of time and water on the steel, in deadly tandem. How much support was left? Little? Hardly any? None? He suddenly saw the face of the mummy again, and the way the flesh, seemingly solid, had crumbled to powder at the effortless touch of his finger.
“We’ll walk now,” the gunslinger said.
He half expected the boy to balk again, but he preceded the gunslinger out onto the rails, crossing on the welded steel slats calmly, with sure feet. The gunslinger followed him out over the chasm, ready to catch him if Jake should put a foot wrong.
The gunslinger felt a fine slick of sweat cover his skin. The trestle was rotten, very rotten. It thrummed beneath his feet with the heady motion of the river far beneath, swaying a little on unseen guy wires. We’re acrobats, he thought. Look, Mother, no net. I’m flying. He knelt once and examined the crossties they were walking on. They were caked and pitted with rust (he could feel the reason on his face—fresh air, the friend of corruption; they must be very close to the surface now), and a strong blow of the fist made the metal quiver sickly. Once he heard a warning groan beneath his feet and felt the steel settle preparatory to giving way, but he had already moved on.
The boy, of course, was over a hundred pounds lighter and safe enough, unless the going became progressively worse.
Behind them, the handcar had melted into the general gloom. The stone pier on the left extended out perhaps twenty yards. It jutted further than the one on the right, but this was also left behind and then they were alone over the gulf.
At first it seemed that the tiny prick of daylight remained mockingly constant (perhaps even drawing away from them at the exact pace they approached it—that would be a fine bit of magic indeed), but gradually the gunslinger realized that it was widening, becoming more defined. They were still below it, but the tracks were rising to meet it.
The boy gave a surprised grunt and suddenly lurched to the side, arms pinwheeling in slow, wide revolutions. It seemed that he tottered on the brink for a very long time indeed before stepping forward again.
“It almost went on me,” he said softly, without emotion. “There’s a hole. Step over if you don’t want to take a quick trip to the bottom. Simon says take one giant step.”
That was a game the gunslinger knew as Mother Says, remembered well from childhood games with Cuthbert, Jamie, and Alain, but he said nothing, only stepped over.
“Go back,” Jake said, unsmiling. “You forgot to say ‘May I?’ ”
“Cry your pardon, but I think not.”
The crosstie the boy had stepped on had given way almost entirely and flopped downward lazily, swinging on a rotten rivet.
Upward, still upward. It was a nightmare walk and so seemed to go on much longer than it did; the air itself seemed to thicken and become like taffy, and the gunslinger felt as if he might be swimming rather than walking. Again and again his mind tried to turn itself to thoughtful, lunatic consideration of the awful space between this trestle and the river below. His brain viewed it in spectacular detail, and how it would be: the scream of twisting, giving metal, the lurch as his body slid off to the side, the grabbing for nonexistent handholds with the fingers, the swift rattle of bootheels on treacherous, rotted steel—and then down, turning over and over, the warm spray in his crotch as his bladder let go, the rush of wind against his face, rippling his hair up in a caricature of fright, pulling his eyelids back, the dark water rushing to meet him, faster, outstripping even his own scream— Metal screamed beneath him and he stepped past it unhurriedly, shifting his weight, at that crucial moment not thinking of the drop, or of how far they had come, or of how far might be left. Not thinking that the boy was expendable and that the sale of his honor was now, at last, nearly negotiated. What a relief it would be when the deal was done!
“Three ties out,” the boy said coolly. “I’m gonna jump. Here! Right here! Geronimo!”
The gunslinger saw him silhouetted for a moment against the daylight, an awkward, hunched spread-eagle, arms out as if, should all else fail, there was the possibility of flight. He landed and the whole edifice swayed drunkenly under his weight. Metal beneath them protested and something far below fell, first with a crash, then with a splash.
“Are you over?” the gunslinger asked.
“Yar,” the boy said, “but it’s very rotten. Like the ideas of certain people, maybe. I don’t think it will hold you any further than where you are now. Me, but not you. Go back. Go back now and leave me alone.”
His voice was cold, but there was hysteria underneath, beating as his heart had beat when he jumped back onto the handcar and Roland had caught him.
The gunslinger stepped over the break. One large step did it. One giant step. Mother, may I? Yes-you-may. The boy was shuddering helplessly. “Go back. I don’t want you to kill me.” “For love of the Man Jesus, walk,” the gunslinger said roughly. “It’s going to fall down for sure if we stand here palavering.”
The boy walked drunkenly now, his hands held out shudderingly before him, fingers splayed.
They went up.
Yes, it was much more rotten now. There were frequent breaks of one, two, even three ties, and the gunslinger expected again and again that they would find the long empty space between rails that would either force them back or make them walk on the rails themselves, balanced giddily over the chasm.
He kept his eyes fixed on the daylight.
The glow had taken on a color—blue—and as it came closer it became softer, paling the radiance of the fot-suls. Fifty yards or a hundred still to cover? He could not say.
They walked, and now he looked at his feet, crossing from tie to tie. When he looked up again, the glow ahead had grown to a hole, and it was not just light but a way out. They were almost there.
Thirty yards now. No more than that. Ninety short feet. It could be done. Perhaps they would have the man in black yet. Perhaps, in the bright sunlight the evil flowers in his mind would shrivel and anything would be possible.
The sunlight was blocked out.
He looked up, startled, peering like a mole from its hole, and saw a silhouette filling the light, eating it up, allowing only chinks of mocking blue around the outline of shoulders and the fork of crotch.
The man in black’s voice echoed to them, amplified in this natural throat of stone, the sarcasm of his good cheer taking on mighty overtones. Blindly, the gunslinger sought the jawbone, but it was gone, lost somewhere, used up.
He laughed above them and the sound crashed around them, reverberating like surf in a filling cave. The boy screamed and tottered, a windmill again, arms gyrating through the scant air.
Metal ripped and sloughed beneath them; the rails canted through a slow and dreamy twisting. The boy plunged, and one hand flew up like a gull in the darkness, up, up, and then he hung over the pit; he dangled there, his dark eyes staring up at the gunslinger in final blind lost knowledge.
Booming, racketing: “No more games. Come now, gunslinger. Or catch me never.”
All the chips on the table. Every card up but one. The boy dangled, a living Tarot card, the Hanged Man, the Phoenician sailor, innocent lost and barely above the wave of a stygian sea.
Wait then, wait awhile.
“Do I go?”
His voice is so loud, he makes it hard to think.