He had come down off the last of the foothills leading the mule, whose eyes were already dead and bulging with the heat. He had passed the last town three weeks before, and since then there had only been the deserted coach track and an occasional huddle of border dwellers’ sod dwellings. The huddles had degenerated into single dwellings, most inhabited by lepers or madmen. He found the madmen better company. One had given him a stainless steel Silva compass and bade him give it to the Man Jesus. The gunslinger took it gravely. If he saw Him, he would turn over the compass. He did not expect that he would, but anything was possible. Once he saw a taheen—this one a man with a raven’s head—but the misbegotten thing fled at his hail, cawing what might have been words. What might even have been curses.
Five days had passed since the last hut, and he had begun to suspect there would be no more when he topped the last eroded hill and saw the familiar low-backed sod roof.
The dweller, a surprisingly young man with a wild shock of strawberry hair that reached almost to his waist, was weeding a scrawny stand of corn with zealous abandon. The mule let out a wheezing grunt and the dweller looked up, glaring blue eyes coming target-center on the gunslinger in a moment. The dweller was unarmed, with no bolt nor bah the gunslinger could see. He raised both hands in curt salute to the stranger and then bent to the corn again, humping up the row next to his hut with back bent, tossing devil-grass and an occasional stunted corn plant over his shoulder. His hair flopped and flew in the wind that now came directly from the desert, with nothing to break it.
The gunslinger came down the hill slowly, leading the donkey on which his waterskins sloshed. He paused by the edge of the lifeless-looking cornpatch, drew a drink from one of his skins to start the saliva, and spat into the arid soil.
“Life for your crop.”
“Life for your own,” the dweller answered and stood up. His back popped audibly. He surveyed the gunslinger without fear. The little of his face visible between beard and hair seemed unmarked by the rot, and his eyes, while a bit wild, seemed sane. “Long days and pleasant nights, stranger.”
“And may you have twice the number.”
“Unlikely,” the dweller replied, and voiced a curt laugh. “I don’t have nobbut corn and beans,” he said. “Corn’s free, but you’ll have to kick something in for the beans. A man brings them out once in a while. He don’t stay long.” The dweller laughed shortly. “Afraid of spirits. Afraid of the bird-man, too.” “I saw him. The bird-man, I mean. He fled me.”
“Yar, he’s lost his way. Claims to be looking for a place called Algul Siento, only sometimes he calls it Blue Haven or Heaven, I can’t make out which. Has thee heard of it?”
The gunslinger shook his head.
“Well . . . he don’t bite and he don’t bide, so fuck him. Is thee alive or dead?”
“Alive,” the gunslinger said. “You speak as the Manni do.”
“I was with ’em awhile, but that was no life for me; too chummy, they are, and always looking for holes in the world.”
This was true, the gunslinger reflected. The Manni-folk were great travelers.
The two of them looked at each other in silence for a moment, and then the dweller put out his hand. “Brown is my name.”
The gunslinger shook and gave his own name. As he did so, a scrawny raven croaked from the low peak of the sod roof. The dweller gestured at it briefly: “That’s Zoltan.”
At the sound of its name the raven croaked again and flew across to Brown. It landed on the dweller’s head and roosted, talons firmly twined in the wild thatch of hair.
“Screw you,” Zoltan croaked brightly. “Screw you and the horse you rode in on.”
The gunslinger nodded amiably. “Beans, beans, the musical fruit,” the raven recited, inspired. “The more you eat, the more you toot.”
“You teach him that?”
“That’s all he wants to learn, I guess,” Brown said. “Tried to teach him The Lord’s Prayer once.” His eyes traveled out beyond the hut for a moment, toward the gritty, featureless hardpan. “Guess this ain’t Lord’s Prayer country. You’re a gunslinger. That right?”
“Yes.” He hunkered down and brought out his makings. Zoltan launched himself from Brown’s head and landed, flittering, on the gunslinger’s shoulder.
“Thought your kind was gone.”
“Then you see different, don’t you?”
“Did’ee come from In-World?”
“Long ago,” the gunslinger agreed.
“Anything left there?”
To this the gunslinger made no reply, but his face suggested this was a topic better not pursued.
“After the other one, I guess.”
“Yes.” The inevitable question followed: “How long since he passed by?”
Brown shrugged. “I don’t know. Time’s funny out here. Distance and direction, too. More than two weeks. Less than two months. The bean man’s been twice since he passed. I’d guess six weeks. That’s probably wrong.”
“The more you eat, the more you toot,” Zoltan said. “Did he lay by?” the gunslinger asked.
Brown nodded. “He stayed supper, same as you will, I guess. We passed the time.”
The gunslinger stood up and the bird flew back to the roof, squawking. He felt an odd, trembling eagerness. “What did he talk about?”
Brown cocked an eyebrow at him. “Not much. Did it ever rain and when did I come here and had I buried my wife. He asked was she of the Manni-folk and I said yar, because it seemed like he already knew. I did most of the talking, which ain’t usual.” He paused, and the only sound was the stark wind. “He’s a sorcerer, ain’t he?”
“Among other things.”
Brown nodded slowly. “I knew. He dropped a rabbit out of his sleeve, all gutted and ready for the pot. Are you?”
“A sorcerer?” He laughed. “I’m just a man.”
“You’ll never catch him.”
“I’ll catch him.”
They looked at each other, a sudden depth of feeling between them, the dweller upon his dust-puff-dry ground, the gunslinger on the hardpan that shelved down to the desert. He reached for his flint.
“Here.” Brown produced a sulfur-headed match and struck it with a grimed nail. The gunslinger pushed the tip of his smoke into the flame and drew.
“Thanks.” “You’ll want to fill your skins,” the dweller said, turning away. “Spring’s under the eaves in back. I’ll start dinner.”
The gunslinger stepped gingerly over the rows of corn and went around back. The spring was at the bottom of a hand-dug well, lined with stones to keep the powdery earth from caving. As he descended the rickety ladder, the gunslinger reflected that the stones must represent two years’ work easily—hauling, dragging, laying. The water was clear but slow-moving, and filling the skins was a long chore. While he was topping the second, Zoltan perched on the lip of the well.
“Screw you and the horse you rode in on,” he advised.
The gunslinger looked up, startled. The shaft was about fifteen feet deep: easy enough for Brown to drop a rock on him, break his head, and steal everything on him. A crazy or a rotter wouldn’t do it; Brown was neither. Yet he liked Brown, and so he pushed the thought out of his mind and got the rest of the water God had willed. Whatever else God willed was ka’s business, not his.
When he came through the hut’s door and walked down the steps (the hovel proper was set below ground level, designed to catch and hold the coolness of the nights), Brown was poking ears of corn into the embers of a tiny fire with a crude hardwood spatula. Two ragged plates had been set at opposite ends of a dun blanket. Water for the beans was just beginning to bubble in a pot hung over the fire.
“I’ll pay for the water, too.” Brown did not look up. “The water’s a gift from God, as I think thee knows. Pappa Doc brings the beans.”
The gunslinger grunted a laugh and sat down with his back against one rude wall, folded his arms, and closed his eyes. After a little, the smell of roasting corn came to his nose. There was a pebbly rattle as Brown dumped a paper of dry beans into the pot. An occasional tak-tak-tak as Zoltan walked restlessly on the roof. He was tired; he had been going sixteen and sometimes eighteen hours a day between here and the horror that had occurred in Tull, the last village. And he had been afoot for the last twelve days; the mule was at the end of its endurance, only living because it was a habit. Once he had known a boy named Sheemie who’d had a mule. Sheemie was gone now; they were all gone now and there was only the two of them: him, and the man in black. He had heard rumor of other lands beyond this, green lands in a place called Mid-World, but it was hard to believe. Out here, green lands seemed like a child’s fantasy.
Two weeks, Brown had said, or as many as six. Didn’t matter. There had been calendars in Tull, and they had remembered the man in black because of the old man he had healed on his way through. Just an old man dying of the weed. An old man of thirty-five. And if Brown was right, he had closed a good deal of distance on the man in black since then. But the desert was next. And the desert would be hell.
Tak-tak-tak . . . Lend me your wings, bird. I’ll spread them and fly on the thermals.