Authors: Stephen King
The sound of the thinny was warbling its way into his brain in spite of the bandanna over his ears, making his eyes water. Behind him, he could hear the whoops and shouts of the pursuing men. It delighted him. Latigo’s men had counted the odds—two dozen against three, with many more of their own force riding hard to join the battle—and their peckers were up once more.
Roland faced front and pointed Rusher at the slit in the brush marking the entrance to Eyebolt Canyon.
Hendricks fell in beside Latigo, breathing hard, cheeks glaring with color. “Sir! Beg to report!”
“Then do it.”
“I have twenty men, and there are p’raps three times that number riding hard to join us.”
Latigo ignored all of this. His eyes were bright blue flecks of ice. Under his mustache was a small, greedy smile. “Rodney,” he said, speaking Hendricks’s first name almost with the caress of a lover.
“I think they’re going in, Rodney. Yes . . . look. I’m sure of it. Two more minutes and it’ll be too late for them to turn back.” He raised his gun, laid the muzzle across his forearm, and threw a shot at the three riders ahead, mostly in exuberance.
“Yes, sir, very good, sir.” Hendricks turned and waved viciously for his men to close up, close up.
Roland shouted when they reached the line of tangled brush. It had a smell that was at once dry and oily, like a fire waiting to happen. He didn’t know if their failure to ride their horses into the canyon would put Latigo’s wind up or not, and he didn’t care. These were good mounts, fine Gilead stock, and over these last months, Rusher had become his friend. He would not take him or any of the horses into the canyon, where they would be caught between the fire and the thinny.
The boys were off the horses in a flash, Alain pulling the drawstring bag free of his saddle-horn and slinging it over one shoulder. Cuthbert’s and Alain’s horses ran at once, whinnying, parallel to the brush, but Rusher lingered for a moment, looking at Roland. “Go on.” Roland slapped him on the flank. “Run.”
Rusher ran, tail streaming out behind him. Cuthbert and Alain slipped through the break in the brush. Roland followed, glancing down to make sure that the powder-trail was still there. It was, and still dry—there had been not a drop of rain since the day they’d laid it.
“Cuthbert,” he said. “Matches.”
Cuthbert gave him some. He was grinning so hard it was a wonder they hadn’t fallen out of his mouth. “We warmed up their day, didn’t we, Roland? Aye!”
“We did, indeed,” Roland said, grinning himself. “Go on, now. Back to that chimney-cut.”
“Let me do it,” Cuthbert said. “Please, Roland, you go with Alain and let me stay. I’m a firebug at heart, always have been.”
“No,” Roland said. “This part of it’s mine. Don’t argue with me. Go on. And tell Alain to mind the wizard’s glass, no matter what.”
Cuthbert looked at him for a moment longer, then nodded. “Don’t wait too long.”
“May your luck rise, Roland.”
“May yours rise twice.”
Cuthbert hurried away, boots rattling on the loose stone which carpeted the floor of the canyon. He reached Alain, who lifted a hand to Roland. Roland nodded back, then ducked
as a bullet snapped close enough to his temple to flick his hatbrim.
He crouched to the left of the opening in the brush and peered around, the wind now striking full in his face. Latigo’s men were closing rapidly. More rapidly than he had expected. If the wind blew out the lucifers—
Never mind the ifs. Hold on, Roland . . . hold on . . . wait for them . . .
He held on, hunkering with an unlit match in each hand, now peering out through a tangle of interlaced branches. The smell of mesquite was strong in his nostrils. Not far behind it was the reek of burning oil. The drone of the thinny filled his head, making him feel dizzy, a stranger to himself. He thought of how it had been inside the pink storm, flying through the air . . . how he had been snatched away from his vision of Susan.
Thank God for Sheemie,
he thought distantly.
He’ll make sure she finishes the day someplace safe.
But the craven whine of the thinny seemed somehow to mock him, to ask him if there had been more to see.
Now Latigo and his men were crossing the last three hundred yards to the canyon’s mouth at a full-out gallop, the ones behind closing up fast. It would be hard for the ones riding point to stop suddenly without the risk of being ridden down.
It was time. Roland stuck one of the lucifers between his front teeth and raked it forward. It lit, spilling one hot and sour spark onto the wet bed of his tongue. Before the lucifer’s head could burn away, Roland touched it to the powder in the trench. It lit at once, running left beneath the north end of the brush in a bright yellow thread.
He lunged across the opening—which might be wide enough for two horses running flank to flank—with the second lucifer already poised behind his teeth. He struck it as soon as he was somewhat blocked from the wind, dropped it into the powder, heard the splutter-hiss, then turned and ran.
Mother and father,
was Roland’s first shocked thought—memory so deep and unexpected it was like a slap.
At Lake Saroni.
When had they gone there, to beautiful Lake Saroni in the northern part of Gilead Barony? That Roland couldn’t
remember. He knew only that he had been very small, and that there had been a beautiful stretch of sandy beach for him to play on, perfect for an aspiring young castle-builder such as he. That was what he had been doing on one day of their
(vacation? was it a vacation? did my parents once upon a time actually take a vacation?)
trip, and he had looked up, something—maybe only the cries of the birds circling over the lake—had made him look up, and there were his mother and father, Steven and Gabrielle Deschain, at the water’s edge, standing with their backs to him and their arms around each other’s waists, looking out at blue water beneath a blue summer sky. How his heart had filled with love for them! How infinite was love, twining in and out of hope and memory like a braid with three strong strands, so much the Bright Tower of every human’s life and soul.
It wasn’t love he felt now, however, but terror. The figures standing before him as he ran back to where the canyon ended (where the
part of the canyon ended) weren’t Steven of Gilead and Gabrielle of Arten but his mollies, Cuthbert and Alain. They didn’t have their arms around each other’s waists, either, but their hands were clasped, like the hands of fairy-tale children lost in a threatening fairy-tale wood. Birds circled, but they were vultures, not gulls, and the shimmering, mist-topped stuff before the two boys wasn’t water.
It was the thinny, and as Roland watched, Cuthbert and Alain began to walk toward it.
“For your fathers’ sakes, stop!”
They did not stop. They walked hand-in-hand toward the white-edged hem of the smoky green shimmer. The thinny whined its pleasure, murmured endearments, promised rewards. It baked the nerves numb and picked at the brain.
There was no time to reach them, so Roland did the only thing he could think of: raised one of his guns and fired it over their heads. The report was a hammer-blow in the canyon’s enclosure, and for a moment the ricochet whine was louder than that of the thinny. The two boys stopped only inches from its sick shimmer. Roland kept expecting it to reach out and grab them, as it had grabbed the low-flying bird when they had been here on the night of the Peddler’s Moon.
He triggered two more shots into the air, the reports hitting
the walls and rolling back.
“To me! To me!”
It was Alain who turned toward him first, his dazed eyes seeming to float in his dust-streaked face. Cuthbert continued forward another step, the tips of his boots disappearing in the greenish-silver froth at the edge of the thinny (the whingeing grumble of the thing rose half a note, as if in anticipation), and then Alain yanked him back by the tugstring of his
. Cuthbert tripped over a good-sized chunk of fallen rock and landed hard. When he looked up, his eyes had cleared.
“Gods!” he murmured, and as he scrambled to his feet, Roland saw that the toes of his boots were gone, clipped off neatly, as if with a pair of gardening shears. His great toes stuck out.
“Roland,” he gasped as he and Alain stumbled toward him. “Roland, we were almost gone. It
“Yes. I’ve heard it. Come on. There’s no time.”
He led them to the notch in the canyon wall, praying that they could get up quick enough to avoid being riddled with bullets . . . as they certainly would be, if Latigo arrived before they could get up at least part of the way.
A smell, acrid and bitter, began to fill the air—an odor like boiling juniper berries. And the first tendrils of whitish-gray smoke drifted past them.
“Cuthbert, you first. Alain, you next. I’ll come last. Climb fast, boys. Climb for your lives.”
Latigo’s men poured through the slot in the wall of brush like water pouring into a funnel, gradually widening the gap as they came. The bottom layer of the dead vegetation was already on fire, but in their excitement none of them saw these first low flames, or marked them if they did. The pungent smoke also went unnoticed; their noses had been deadened by the colossal stench of the burning oil. Latigo himself, in the lead with Hendricks close behind, had only one thought; two words that pounded at his brain in a kind of vicious triumph:
Box canyon! Box canyon! Box canyon!
Yet something began to intrude on this mantra as he galloped
deeper into Eyebolt, his horse’s hooves clattering nimbly through the scree of rocks and
whitish piles of cow-skulls and ribcages. This was a kind of low buzzing, a maddening, slobbering whine, insectile and insistent. It made his eyes water. Yet, strong as the sound was (if it
a sound; it almost seemed to be coming from
him), he pushed it aside, holding onto his mantra
(box canyon box canyon got em in a box canyon)
instead. He would have to face Walter when this was over, perhaps Farson himself, and he had no idea what his punishment would be for losing the tankers . . . but all that was for later. Now he wanted only to kill these interfering bastards.
Up ahead, the canyon took a jog to the north. They would be beyond that point, and probably not far beyond, either. Backed up against the canyon’s final wall, trying to squeeze themselves behind what fallen rocks there might be. Latigo would mass what guns he had and drive them out into the open with ricochets. They would probably come with their hands up, hoping for mercy. They would hope in vain. After what they’d done, the trouble they’d caused—
As Latigo rode around the jog in the canyon’s wall, already levelling his pistol, his horse screamed—like a woman, it screamed—and reared beneath him. Latigo caught the saddle-horn and managed to stay up, but the horse’s rear hooves slid sideways in the scree and the animal went down. Latigo let go of the horn and threw himself clear, already aware that the sound which had been creeping into his ears was suddenly ten times stronger, buzzing loud enough to make his eyeballs pulse in their sockets, loud enough to make his balls tingle unpleasantly, loud enough to blot out the mantra which had been beating so insistently in his head.
The insistence of the thinny was far, far greater than any George Latigo could have managed.
Horses flashed around him as he landed in a kind of sprawling squat, horses that were shoved forward willy-nilly by the oncoming press from behind, by riders that squeezed through the gap in pairs (then trios as the hole in the brush, now burning all along its length, widened) and then spread out again once they were past the bottleneck, none of them clearly realizing that the entire
was a bottleneck.
Latigo got a confused glimpse of black tails and gray
forelegs and dappled fetlocks; he saw chaps, and jeans, and boots jammed into stirrups. He tried to get up and a horseshoe clanged against the back of his skull. His hat saved him from unconsciousness, but he went heavily to his knees with his head down, like a man who means to pray, his vision full of stars and the back of his neck instantly soaked with blood from the gash the passing hoof had opened in his scalp.
Now he heard more screaming horses. Screaming men, as well. He got up again, coughing out the dust raised by the passing horses (such acrid dust, too; it clawed his throat like smoke), and saw Hendricks trying to spur his horse south and east against the oncoming tide of riders. He couldn’t do it. The rear third of the canyon was some sort of swamp, filled with greenish steaming water, and there must be quicksand beneath it, because Hendricks’s horse seemed stuck. It screamed again, and tried to rear. Its hindquarters slewed sideways. Hendricks crashed his boots into the animal’s sides again and again, attempting to get it in motion, but the horse didn’t—or couldn’t—move. That hungry buzzing sound filled Latigo’s ears, and seemed to fill the world.
“Back! Turn back!”
He tried to scream the words, but they came out in what was little more than a croak. Still the riders pounded past him, raising dust that was too thick to be
dust. Latigo pulled in breath so he could scream louder—they
to go back, something was dreadfully wrong in Eyebolt Canyon—and hacked it out without saying anything.
And everywhere, filling the world like lunacy, that whining, whingeing, cringing buzz.
Hendricks’s horse went down, eyes rolling, bit-parted teeth snapping at the smoky air and splattering curds of foam from its lips. Hendricks fell into the steaming stagnant water, and it wasn’t water at all. It came alive, somehow, as he struck it; grew green hands and a green, shifty mouth; pawed his cheek and melted away the flesh, pawed his nose and tore it off, pawed at his eyes and stripped them from their sockets. It pulled Hendricks under, but before it did, Latigo saw his denuded jawbone, a bloody piston to drive his screaming teeth.