He’d bought the mule in Pricetown, and when he reached Tull, it was still fresh. The sun had set an hour earlier, but the gunslinger had continued traveling, guided by the town glow in the sky, then by the uncannily clear notes of a honky-tonk piano playing “Hey Jude.” The road widened as it took on tributaries. Here and there were overhead sparklights, all of them long dead.
The forests were long gone now, replaced by the monotonous flat prairie country: endless, desolate fields gone to timothy and low shrubs; eerie, deserted estates guarded by brooding, shadowed mansions where demons undeniably walked; leering, empty shanties where the people had either moved on or had been moved along; an occasional dweller’s hovel, given away by a single flickering point of light in the dark, or by sullen, inbred clan-fams toiling silently in the fields by day. Corn was the main crop, but there were beans and also some pokeberries. An occasional scrawny cow stared at him lumpishly from between peeled alder poles. Coaches had passed him four times, twice coming and twice going, nearly empty as they came up on him from behind and bypassed him and his mule, fuller as they headed back toward the forests of the north. Now and then a farmer passed with his feet up on the splashboard of his bucka, careful not to look at the man with the guns.
It was ugly country. It had showered twice since he had left Pricetown, grudgingly both times. Even the timothy looked yellow and dispirited. Pass-on-by country. He had seen no sign of the man in black. Perhaps he had taken a coach.
The road made a bend, and beyond it the gunslinger clucked the mule to a stop and looked down at Tull. It was at the floor of a circular, bowl-shaped hollow, a shoddy jewel in a cheap setting. There were a number of lights, most of them clustered around the area of the music. There looked to be four streets, three running at right angles to the coach road, which was the main avenue of the town. Perhaps there would be a cafe. He doubted it, but perhaps. He clucked at the mule.
More houses sporadically lined the road now, most of them still deserted. He passed a tiny graveyard with moldy, leaning wooden slabs overgrown and choked by the rank devil-grass. Perhaps five hundred feet further on he passed a chewed sign which said: TULL.
The paint was flaked almost to the point of illegibility. There was another further on, but the gunslinger was not able to read that one at all.
A fool’s chorus of half-stoned voices was rising in the final protracted lyric of “Hey Jude”—“Naa-naa-naa naa-na-na-na . . . hey, Jude . . .”—as he entered the town proper. It was a dead sound, like the wind in the hollow of a rotted tree. Only the prosaic thump and pound of the honky-tonk piano saved him from seriously wondering if the man in black might not have raised ghosts to inhabit a deserted town. He smiled a little at the thought.
There were people on the streets, but not many. Three ladies wearing black slacks and identical high-collared blouses passed by on the opposite boardwalk, not looking at him with pointed curiosity. Their faces seemed to swim above their all-but-invisible bodies like pallid balls with eyes. A solemn old man with a straw hat perched firmly on top of his head watched him from the steps of a boarded-up mercantile store. A scrawny tailor with a late customer paused to watch him go by; he held up the lamp in his window for a better look. The gunslinger nodded. Neither the tailor nor his customer nodded back. He could feel their eyes resting heavily upon the low-slung holsters that lay against his hips. A young boy, perhaps thirteen, and a girl who might have been his sissa or his jilly-child crossed the street a block up, pausing imperceptibly. Their footfalls raised little hanging clouds of dust. Here in town most of the streetside lamps worked, but they weren’t electric; their isinglass sides were cloudy with congealed oil. Some had been crashed out. There was a livery with a just-hanging-on look to it, probably depending on the coach line for its survival. Three boys were crouched silently around a marble ring drawn in the dust to one side of the barn’s gaping maw, smoking cornshuck cigarettes. They made long shadows in the yard. One had a scorpion’s tail poked in the band of his hat. Another had a bloated left eye bulging sightlessly from its socket.
The gunslinger led his mule past them and looked into the dim depths of the barn. One lamp glowed sunkenly. A shadow jumped and flickered as a gangling old man in bib overalls forked loose timothy hay into the hayloft with big, grunting swipes of his fork.
“Hey!” the gunslinger called.
The fork faltered and the hostler looked around with yellow-tinged eyes. “Hey yourself!”
“I got a mule here.”
“Good for you.” The gunslinger flicked a heavy, unevenly milled gold piece into the semidark. It rang on the old, chaff-drifted boards and glittered.
The hostler came forward, bent, picked it up, squinted at the gunslinger. His eyes dropped to the gunbelts and he nodded sourly. “How long you want him put up?”
“A night or two. Maybe longer.”
“I ain’t got no change for gold.”
“Didn’t ask for any.”
“Shoot-up money,” the hostler muttered.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing.” The hostler caught the mule’s bridle and led him inside.
“Rub him down!” the gunslinger called. “I expect to smell it on him when I come back, hear me well!”
The old man did not turn. The gunslinger walked out to the boys crouched around the marble ring. They had watched the entire exchange with contemptuous interest.
“Long days and pleasant nights,” the gunslinger offered conversationally.
“You fellas live in town?”
No answer, unless the scorpion’s tail gave one: it seemed to nod.
One of the boys removed a crazily tilted twist of corn-shuck from his mouth, grasped a green cat’s-eye marble, and squirted it into the dirt circle. It struck a croaker and knocked it outside. He picked up the cat’s-eye and prepared to shoot again.
“There a cafe in this town?” the gunslinger asked.
One of them looked up, the youngest. There was a huge cold-sore at the corner of his mouth, but his eyes were both the same size, and full of an innocence that wouldn’t last long in this shithole. He looked at the gunslinger with hooded brimming wonder that was touching and frightening.
“Might get a burger at Sheb’s.”
“That the honky-tonk?”
The boy nodded. “Yar.” The eyes of his mates had turned ugly and hostile. He would probably pay for having spoken up in kindness.
The gunslinger touched the brim of his hat. “I’m grateful. It’s good to know someone in this town is bright enough to talk.”
He walked past, mounted the boardwalk, and started down toward Sheb’s, hearing the clear, contemptuous voice of one of the others, hardly more than a childish treble: “Weed-eater! How long you been screwin’ your sister, Charlie? Weed-eater!” Then the sound of a blow and a cry.
There were three flaring kerosene lamps in front of Sheb’s, one to each side and one nailed above the drunk-hung batwing doors. The chorus of “Hey Jude” had petered out, and the piano was plinking some other old ballad. Voices murmured like broken threads. The gunslinger paused outside for a moment, looking in. Sawdust floor, spittoons by the tipsy-legged tables. A plank bar on sawhorses. A gummy mirror behind it, reflecting the piano player, who wore an inevitable piano-stool slouch. The front of the piano had been removed so you could watch the wooden keys whonk up and down as the contraption was played. The bartender was a straw-haired woman wearing a dirty blue dress. One strap was held with a safety pin. There were perhaps six townies in the back of the room, juicing and playing Watch Me apathetically. Another half-dozen were grouped loosely about the piano. Four or five at the bar. And an old man with wild gray hair collapsed at a table by the doors. The gunslinger went in.
Heads swiveled to look at him and his guns. There was a moment of near silence, except for the oblivious piano player, who continued to tinkle. Then the woman mopped at the bar, and things shifted back.
“Watch me,” one of the players in the corner said and matched three hearts with four spades, emptying his hand. The one with the hearts swore, pushed over his stake, and the next hand was dealt.
The gunslinger approached the woman at the bar. “You got meat?” he asked.
“Sure.” She looked him in the eye, and she might have been pretty when she started out, but the world had moved on since then. Now her face was lumpy and there a livid scar went corkscrewing across her forehead. She had powdered it heavily, and the powder called attention to what it had been meant to camouflage. “Clean beef. Threaded stock. It’s dear, though.”
Threaded stock, my ass, the gunslinger thought. What you got in your cooler came from something with three eyes, six legs, or both—that’s my guess, lady-sai.
“I want three burgers and a beer, would it please ya.”
Again that subtle shift in tone. Three hamburgers. Mouths watered and tongues licked at saliva with slow lust. Three hamburgers. Had anyone here ever seen anyone eat three hamburgers at a go?
“That would go you five bocks. Do you ken bocks?”
She nodded, so she was probably saying bucks. That was his guess, anyway.
“That with the beer?” he asked, smiling a little. “Or is the beer extra?”
She didn’t return the smile. “I’ll throw in the suds. Once I see the color of your money, that is.”
The gunslinger put a gold piece on the bar, and every eye followed it.
There was a smoldering charcoal cooker behind the bar and to the left of the mirror. The woman disappeared into a small room behind it and returned with meat on a paper. She scrimped out three patties and put them on the grill. The smell that arose was maddening. The gunslinger stood with stolid indifference, only peripherally aware of the faltering piano, the slowing of the card game, the sidelong glances of the barflies.
The man was halfway up behind him when the gunslinger saw him in the mirror. The man was almost completely bald, and his hand was wrapped around the haft of a gigantic hunting knife that was looped onto his belt like a holster.
“Go sit down,” the gunslinger said. “Do yourself a favor, cully.”
The man stopped. His upper lip lifted unconsciously, like a dog’s, and there was a moment of silence. Then he went back to his table, and the atmosphere shifted back again.
Beer came in a cracked glass schooner. “I ain’t got change for gold,” the woman said truculently.
“Don’t expect any.”
She nodded angrily, as if this show of wealth, even at her benefit, incensed her. But she took his gold, and a moment later the hamburgers came on a cloudy plate, still red around the edges.
“Do you have salt?”
She gave it to him in a little crock she took from underneath the bar, white lumps he’d have to crumble with his fingers. “Bread?”
“No bread.” He knew she was lying, but he also knew why and didn’t push it. The bald man was staring at him with cyanosed eyes, his hands clenching and unclenching on the splintered and gouged surface of his table. His nostrils flared with pulsating regularity, scooping up the smell of the meat. That, at least, was free.