Brown woke him up an hour later. It was dark. The only light was the dull cherry glare of the banked embers.
“Your mule has passed on,” Brown said. “Tell ya sorry. Dinner’s ready.”
Brown shrugged. “Roasted and boiled, how else? You picky?”
“No, the mule.”
“It just laid over, that’s all. It looked like an old mule.” And with a touch of apology: “Zoltan et the eyes.”
“Oh.” He might have expected it. “All right.”
Brown surprised him again when they sat down to the blanket that served as a table by asking a brief blessing: Rain, health, expansion to the spirit.
“Do you believe in an afterlife?” the gunslinger asked him as Brown dropped three ears of hot corn onto his plate.
Brown nodded. “I think this is it.”
The beans were like bullets, the corn tough. Outside, the prevailing wind snuffled and whined around the ground-level eaves. The gunslinger ate quickly, ravenously, drinking four cups of water with the meal. Halfway through, there was a machine-gun rapping at the door. Brown got up and let Zoltan in. The bird flew across the room and hunched moodily in the corner.
“Musical fruit,” he muttered.
“You ever think about eating him?” the gunslinger asked.
The dweller laughed. “Animals that talk be tough,” he said. “Birds, billy-bumblers, human beans. They be tough eatin’.”
After dinner, the gunslinger offered his tobacco. The dweller, Brown, accepted eagerly.
Now, the gunslinger thought. Now the questions will come.
But Brown asked no questions. He smoked tobacco that had been grown in Garlan years before and looked at the dying embers of the fire. It was already noticeably cooler in the hovel.
“Lead us not into temptation,” Zoltan said suddenly, apocalyptically.
The gunslinger started as if he had been shot at. He was suddenly sure all this was an illusion, that the man in black had spun a spell and was trying to tell him something in a maddeningly obtuse, symbolic way.
“Do you know Tull?” he asked suddenly.
Brown nodded. “Came through it to get here, went back once to sell corn and drink a glass of whiskey. It rained that year. Lasted maybe fifteen minutes. The ground just seemed to open and suck it up. An hour later it was just as white and dry as ever. But the corn—God, the corn. You could see it grow. That wasn’t so bad. But you could hear it, as if the rain had given it a mouth. It wasn’t a happy sound. It seemed to be sighing and groaning its way out of the earth.” He paused. “I had extra, so I took it and sold it. Pappa Doc said he’d do it, but he would have cheated me. So I went.”
“You don’t like town?”
“I almost got killed there,” the gunslinger said.
“Do you say so?”
“Set my watch and warrant on it. And I killed a man that was touched by God,” the gunslinger said. “Only it wasn’t God. It was the man with the rabbit up his sleeve. The man in black.”
“He laid you a trap.”
“You say true, I say thank ya.”
They looked at each other across the shadows, the moment taking on overtones of finality.
Now the questions will come.
But Brown still had no questions to ask. His cigarette was down to a smoldering roach, but when the gunslinger tapped his poke, Brown shook his head.
Zoltan shifted restlessly, seemed about to speak, subsided.
“Will I tell you about it?” the gunslinger asked. “Ordinarily I’m not much of a talker, but . . .”
“Sometimes talking helps. I’ll listen.”
The gunslinger searched for words to begin and found none. “I have to pass water,” he said.
Brown nodded. “Pass it in the corn, please.”
He went up the stairs and out into the dark. The stars glittered overhead. The wind pulsed. His urine arched out over the powdery cornfield in a wavering stream. The man in black had drawn him here. It wasn’t beyond possibility that Brown was the man in black. He might be . . .
The gunslinger shut these useless and upsetting thoughts away. The only contingency he had not learned how to bear was the possibility of his own madness. He went back inside.
“Have you decided if I’m an enchantment yet?” Brown asked, amused.
The gunslinger paused on the tiny landing, startled. Then he came down slowly and sat. “The thought crossed my mind. Are you?”
“If I am, I don’t know it.”
This wasn’t a terribly helpful answer, but the gunslinger decided to let it pass. “I started to tell you about Tull.”
“Is it growing?” “It’s dead,” the gunslinger said. “I killed it.” He thought of adding: And now I’m going to kill you, if for no other reason than I don’t want to have to sleep with one eye open. But had he come to such behavior? If so, why bother to go on at all? Why, if he had become what he pursued?
Brown said, “I don’t want nothing from you, gunslinger, except to still be here when you move on. I won’t beg for my life, but that don’t mean I don’t want it yet awhile longer.”
The gunslinger closed his eyes. His mind whirled.
“Tell me what you are,” he said thickly.
“Just a man. One who means you no harm. And I’m still willing to listen if you’re willing to talk.”
To this the gunslinger made no reply.
“I guess you won’t feel right about it unless I invite you,” Brown said, “and so I do. Will you tell me about Tull?”
The gunslinger was surprised to find that this time the words were there. He began to speak in flat bursts that slowly spread into an even, slightly toneless narrative. He found himself oddly excited. He talked deep into the night. Brown did not interrupt at all. Neither did the bird.