He came in the late afternoon of the day Nort died, and the wind was whooping it up, pulling away the loose topsoil, sending sheets of grit and uprooted stalks of corn windmilling past. Jubal Kennerly had padlocked the livery, and the few other merchants had shuttered their windows and laid boards across the shutters. The sky was the yellow color of old cheese and the clouds flew across it, as if they had seen something horrifying in the desert wastes where they had so lately been.
The gunslinger’s quarry came in a rickety rig with a rippling tarp tied across its bed. There was a big howdy-do of a grin on his face. They watched him come, and old man Kennerly, lying by the window with a bottle in one hand and the loose, hot flesh of his second-eldest daughter’s left breast in the other, resolved not to be there if he should knock.
But the man in black went by without slowing the bay that pulled his rig, and the spinning wheels spumed up dust that the wind clutched eagerly. He might have been a priest or a monk; he wore a black robe that had been floured with dust, and a loose hood covered his head and obscured his features, but not that horrid happy grin. The robe rippled and flapped. From beneath the garment’s hem there peeped heavy buckled boots with square toes.
He pulled up in front of Sheb’s and tethered the horse, which lowered its head and grunted at the ground. Around the back of the rig he untied one flap, found a weathered saddlebag, threw it over his shoulder, and went in through the batwings.
Alice watched him curiously, but no one else noticed his arrival. The regulars were drunk as lords. Sheb was playing Methodist hymns ragtime, and the grizzled layabouts who had come in early to avoid the storm and to attend Nort’s wake had sung themselves hoarse. Sheb, drunk nearly to the point of senselessness, intoxicated and horny with his own continued existence, played with hectic, shuttlecock speed, fingers flying like looms.
Voices screeched and hollered, never overcoming the wind but sometimes seeming to challenge it. In the corner, Zachary had thrown Amy Feldon’s skirts over her head and was painting Reap-charms on her knees. A few other women circulated. A fever seemed to be on all of them. The dull stormglow that filtered through the batwings seemed to mock them, however.
Nort had been laid out on two tables in the center of the room. His engineer boots made a mystical V. His mouth hung open in a slack grin, although someone had closed his eyes and put slugs on them. His hands had been folded on his chest with a sprig of devil-grass in them. He smelled like poison.
The man in black pushed back his hood and came to the bar. Alice watched him, feeling trepidation mixed with the familiar want that hid within her. There was no religious symbol on him, although that meant nothing by itself.
“Whiskey,” he said. His voice was soft and pleasant. “I want the good stuff, honey.”
She reached under the counter and brought out a bottle of Star. She could have palmed off the local popskull on him as her best, but did not. She poured, and the man in black watched her. His eyes were large, luminous. The shadows were too thick to determine their color exactly. Her need intensified. The hollering and whooping went on behind, unabated. Sheb, the worthless gelding, was playing about the Christian Soldiers and somebody had persuaded Aunt Mill to sing. Her voice, warped and distorted, cut through the babble like a dull ax through a calf’s brain.
She went to serve, resentful of the stranger’s silence, resentful of his no-color eyes and her own restless groin. She was afraid of her needs. They were capricious and beyond her control. They might be the signal of change, which would in turn signal the beginning of her old age—a condition which in Tull was usually as short and bitter as a winter sunset.
She drew beer until the keg was empty, then broached another. She knew better than to ask Sheb; he would come willingly enough, like the dog he was, and would either chop off his own fingers or spume beer all over everything. The stranger’s eyes were on her as she went about it; she could feel them.
“It’s busy,” he said when she returned. He had not touched his drink, merely rolled it between his palms to warm it.
“Wake,” she said.
“I noticed the departed.”
“They’re bums,” she said with sudden hatred. “All bums.” “It excites them. He’s dead. They’re not.”
“He was their butt when he was alive. It’s not right that he should be their butt now. It’s . . .” She trailed off, not able to express what it was, or how it was obscene.
“Yes! What else did he have?”
Her tone was accusing, but he did not drop his eyes, and she felt the blood rush to her face. “I’m sorry. Are you a priest? This must revolt you.”
“I’m not and it doesn’t.” He knocked the whiskey back neatly and did not grimace. “Once more, please. Once more with feeling, as they say in the world next door.”
She had no idea what that might mean, and was afraid to ask. “I’ll have to see the color of your coin first. I’m sorry.”
“No need to be.”
He put a rough silver coin on the counter, thick on one edge, thin on the other, and she said as she would say later: “I don’t have change for this.”
He shook his head, dismissing it, and watched absently as she poured again.
“Are you only passing through?” she asked.
He did not reply for a long time, and she was about to repeat when he shook his head impatiently. “Don’t talk trivialities. You’re here with death.”
She recoiled, hurt and amazed, her first thought being that he had lied about his holiness to test her.
“You cared for him,” he said flatly. “Isn’t that true?”
“Who? Nort?” She laughed, affecting annoyance to cover her confusion. “I think you better—”
“You’re soft-hearted and a little afraid,” he went on, “and he was on the weed, looking out hell’s back door. And there he is, they’ve even slammed the door now, and you don’t think they’ll open it until it’s time for you to walk through, isn’t it so?”
“What are you, drunk?”
“Mistuh Norton, he daid,” the man in black intoned, giving the words a sardonic little twist. “Dead as anybody. Dead as you or anybody.”
“Get out of my place.” She felt a trembling loathing spring up in her, but the warmth still radiated from her belly.
“It’s all right,” he said softly. “It’s all right. Wait. Just wait.”
The eyes were blue. She felt suddenly easy in her mind, as if she had taken a drug.
“Dead as anybody,” he said. “Do you see?”
She nodded dumbly and he laughed aloud—a fine, strong, untainted laugh that swung heads around. He whirled and faced them, suddenly the center of attention. Aunt Mill faltered and subsided, leaving a cracked high note bleeding on the air. Sheb struck a discord and halted. They looked at the stranger uneasily. Sand rattled against the sides of the building.
The silence held, spun itself out. Her breath had clogged in her throat and she looked down and saw both hands pressed to her belly beneath the bar. They all looked at him and he looked at them. Then the laugh burst forth again, strong, rich, beyond denial. But there was no urge to laugh along with him.
“I’ll show you a wonder!” he cried at them. But they only watched him, like obedient children taken to see a magician in whom they have grown too old to believe.
The man in black sprang forward, and Aunt Mill drew away from him. He grinned fiercely and slapped her broad belly. A short, unwitting cackle was forced out of her, and the man in black threw back his head.
“It’s better, isn’t it?”
Aunt Mill cackled again, suddenly broke into sobs, and fled blindly through the doors. The others watched her go silently. The storm was beginning; shadows followed each other, rising and falling on the white cyclorama of the sky. A man near the piano with a forgotten beer in one hand made a groaning, slobbering sound.
The man in black stood over Nort, grinning down at him. The wind howled and shrieked and thrummed. Something large struck the side of the building hard enough to make it shake and then bounced away. One of the men at the bar tore himself free and headed for some quieter locale, moving in great grotesque strides. Thunder racketed the sky with a sound like some god coughing.