Wolves of the Calla Part Two Telling Tales Chapter V: The Tale of Gray Dick

ONE

Now it's twenty-three , Roland thought that evening as he sat behind Eisenhart's Rocking B, listening to the boys shout and Oy bark. Back in Gilead, this sort of porch behind the main house, facing the barns and the fields, would have been called the work-stoop. Twenty-three days until the Wolves. And how many until Susannah foals ?

A terrible idea concerning that had begun to form in his head. Suppose Mia, the new she inside Susannah's skin, were to give birth to her monstrosity on the very day the Wolves appeared? One wouldn't think that likely, but according to Eddie, coincidence had been cancelled. Roland thought he was probably right about that. Certainly there was no way to gauge the thing's period of gestation. Even if it had been a human child, nine months might no longer be nine months. Time had grown soft.

"Boys!" Eisenhart bawled. "What in the name of the Man Jesus am I going to tell my wife if you kill yer sad selfs jumpin out of that barn?"

"We're okay!" Benny Slightman called. "Andy won't let us get hurt!" The boy, dressed in bib overalls and barefooted, was standing in the open bay of the barn, just above the carved letters which said Rocking B. "Unless... do you really want us to stop, sai?"

Eisenhart glanced toward Roland, who saw Jake standing just behind Benny, impatiently waiting his chance to risk his bones. Jake was also dressed in bib overalls - a pair of his new friend's, no doubt - and the look of them made Roland smile.

Jake wasn't the sort of boy you imagined in such clothes, somehow.

"It's nil to me, one way or the other, if that's what you want to know," Roland said.

"Garn, then!" the rancher called. Then he turned his attention to the bits and pieces of hardware spread out on the boards. "What do'ee think? Will any of em shoot?"

Eisenhart had produced all three of his guns for Roland's inspection. The best was the rifle the rancher had brought to town on the night Tian Jaffords had called the meeting. The other two were pistols of the sort Roland and his friends had called "barrel-shooters" as children, because of the oversized cylinders which had to be revolved with the side of the hand after each shot. Roland had disassembled Eisenhart's shooting irons with no initial comment. Once again he had set out gun-oil, this time in a bowl instead of a saucer.

"I said - "

"I heard you, sai," Roland said. "Your rifle is as good as I've seen this side of the great city. The barrel-shooters..." He shook his head. "That one with the nickel plating might fire. The other you might as well stick in the ground. Maybe it'll grow something better."

"Hate to hear you speak so," Eisenhart said. "These were from my Da' and his Da' before him and on back at least this many." He raised seven fingers and one thumb. "That's back to before the Wolves, ye ken. They was always kept together and passed to the likeliest son by dead-letter. When I got em instead of my elder brother, I was some pleased."

"Did you have a twin?" Roland asked.

"Aye, Verna," Eisenhart said. He smiled easily and often and did so now beneath his great graying bush of a mustache, but it was painful - the smile of a man who doesn't want you to know he's bleeding somewhere inside his clothes. "She was lovely as dawn, so she was. Passed on these ten year or more. Went painful early, as the roont ones often do."

"I'm sorry."

"Say thankya."

The sun was going down red in the southwest, turning the yard the color of blood. There was a line of rockers on the porch. Eisenhart was settled in one of them. Roland sat cross-legged on the boards, housekeeping Eisenhart's inheritance. That the pistols would probably never fire meant nothing to the gunslinger's hands, which had been trained to this work long ago and still found it soothing.

Now, with a speed that made the rancher blink, Roland put the weapons back together in a rapid series of clicks and clacks. He set them aside on a square of sheepskin, wiped his fingers on a rag, and sat in the rocker next to Eisenhart's. He guessed that on more ordinary evenings, Eisenhart and his wife sat out here side by side, watching the sun abandon the day.

Roland rummaged through his purse for his tobacco pouch, found it, and built himself a cigarette with Callahan's fresh, sweet tobacco. Rosalita had added her own present, a little stack of delicate cornshuck wraps she called "pulls." Roland thought they wrapped as good as any cigarette paper, and he paused a moment to admire the finished product before tipping the end into the match Eisenhart had popped alight with one horny thumbnail. The gunslinger dragged deep and exhaled a long plume that rose but slowly in the evening air, which was still and surprisingly muggy for summer's end. "Good," he said, and nodded.

"Aye? May it do ya fine. I never got the taste for it myself."

The barn was far bigger than the ranchhouse, at least fifty yards long and fifty feet high. The front was festooned with reapcharms in honor of the season; stuffy-guys with huge sharproot heads stood guard. From above the open bay over the main doors, the butt of the head-beam jutted. A rope had been fastened around this. Below, in the yard, the boys had built a good-sized stack of hay. Oy stood on one side of it, Andy on the other. They were both looking up as Benny Slightman grabbed the rope, gave it a tug, then retreated back into the loft and out of sight. Oy began to bark in anticipation. A moment later Benny came pelting forward with the rope wrapped in his fists and his hair flying out behind him.

"Gilead and the Eld! " he cried, and leaped from the bay. He swung into the red sunset air with his shadow trailing behind him.

"Ben-Ben! "Oy barked. "Ben-Ben-Ben!"

The boy let go, flew into the haystack, disappeared, then popped up laughing. Andy offered him a metal hand but Benny ignored it, flopping out onto the hardpacked earth. Oy ran around him, barking.

"Do they always call so at play?" Roland asked.

Eisenhart snorted laughter. "Not at all! Usually it's a cry of Oriza, or Man Jesus, or 'hail the Calla,' or all three. Your boy's been filling Slightman's boy full of tales, thinks I."

Roland ignored the slightly disapproving note in this and watched Jake reel in the rope. Benny lay on the ground, playing dead, until Oy licked his face. Then he sat up, giggling. Roland had no doubt that if the boy had gone off-course, Andy would have snagged him.

To one side of the barn was a remuda of work-horses, perhaps twenty in all. A trio of cowpokes in chaps and battered shor'boots were leading the last half-dozen mounts toward it. On the other side of the yard was a slaughter-pen filled with steers. In the following weeks they would be butchered and sent downriver on the trading boats.

Jake retreated into the loft, then came pelting forward. "New York !" he shouted. "Times Square! Empire State Building! Twin Towers! Statue of Liberty !" And he launched himself into space along the arc of the rope. They watched him disappear, laughing, into the pile of hay.

"Any particular reason you wanted your other two to stay with the Jaffordses?" Eisenhart asked. He spoke idly, but Roland thought this was a question that interested him more than a little.

"Best we spread ourselves around. Let as many as possible get a good look at us. Time is short. Decisions must be made." All of which was true, but there was more, and Eisenhart probably knew it. He was shrewder than Overholser. He was also dead set against standing up to the Wolves - at least so far. This didn't keep Roland from liking the man, who was big and honest and possessed of an earthy countryman's sense of humor. Roland thought he might come around, if he could be shown they had a chance to win.

On their way out to the Rocking B, they had visited half a dozen smallhold farms along the river, where rice was the main crop. Eisenhart had performed the introductions good-naturedly enough. At each stop Roland had asked the two questions he had asked the previous night, at the Pavilion: Will you open to us, if we open to you ? Do you see us for what we are, and accept us for what we do ? All of them had answered yes. Eisenhart had also answered yes. But Roland knew better than to ask the third question of any. There was no need to, not yet. They still had over three weeks.

"We bide, gunslinger," Eisenhart said. "Even in the face of the Wolves, we bide. Once there was Gilead and now there's Gilead nummore - none knows better'n you - but still we bide. If we stand against the Wolves, all that may change. To you and yours, what happens along the Crescent might not mean's'much as a fart in a high wind one way or't'other. If ye win and survive, you'll move along. If ye lose and die, we have nowhere to go."

"But - "

Eisenhart raised his hand. "Hear me, I beg. Would'ee hear me?"

Roland nodded, resigned to it. And for him to speak was probably for the best. Beyond them, the boys were running back into the barn for another leap. Soon the coming dark would put an end to their game. The gunslinger wondered how Eddie and Susannah were making out. Had they spoken to Tian's Gran-pere yet? And if so, had he told them anything of value?

"Suppose they send fifty or even sixty, as they have before, many and many-a? And suppose we wipe them out? And then, suppose that a week or a month later, after you're gone, they send five hundred against us?"

Roland considered the question. As he was doing so, Margaret Eisenhart joined them. She was a slim woman, fortyish, small-breasted, dressed in jeans and a shirt of gray silk. Her hair, pulled back in a bun against her neck, was black threaded with white. One hand hid beneath her apron.

"That's a fair question," she said, "but this might not be a fair time to ask it. Give him and his friends a week, why don't you, to peek about and see what they may see."

Eisenhart gave his sai a look that was half humorous and half irritated. "Do I tell'ee how to run your kitchen, woman? When to cook and when to wash?"

"Only four times a week," said she. Then, seeing Roland rise from the rocker next to her husband's: "Nay, sit still, I beg you. I've been in a chair this last hour, peeling sharproot with Edna, yon's auntie." She nodded in Benny's direction. "It's good to be on my feet." She watched, smiling, as the boys swung out into the pile of hay and landed, laughing, while Oy danced and barked. "Vaughn and I have never had to face the full horror of it before, Roland. We had six, all twins, but all grown in the time between. So we may not have all the understanding needed to make such a decision as you ask."

"Being lucky doesn't make a man stupid," Eisenhart said. "Quite the contrary, is what I think. Cool eyes see clear."

"Perhaps," she said, watching the boys run back into the barn. They were bumping shoulders and laughing, each trying to get to the ladder first. "Perhaps, aye. But the heart must call for its rights, too, and a man or woman who doesn't listen is a fool. Sometimes 'tis best to swing on the rope, even if it's too dark to see if the hay's there or not."

Roland reached out and touched her hand. "I couldn't have said better myself."

She gave him a small, distracted smile. It was only a moment before she returned her attention to the boys, but it was long enough for Roland to see that she was frightened. Terrified, in fact.

"Ben, Jake!" she called. "Enough! Time to wash and then come in! There's pie for those can eat it, and cream to go on top!"

Benny came to the open bay. "My Da' says we can sleep in my tent over on the bluff, sai, if it's all right with you."

Margaret Eisenhart looked at her husband. Eisenhart nodded. "All right," she said, "tent it is and give you joy of it, but come in now if you'd have pie. Last warning! And wash first, mind'ee! Hands and faces!"

"Aye, say thankya," Benny said. "Can Oy have pie?"

Margaret Eisenhart thudded the pad of her left hand against her brow, as if she had a headache. The right, Roland was interested to note, stayed beneath her apron. "Aye," she said, "pie for the bumbler, too, as I'm sure he's Arthur Eld in disguise and will reward me with jewels and gold and the healing touch."

"Thankee-sai,"Jake called. "Could we have one more swing first? It's the quickest way down."

"I'll catch them if they fly wrong, Margaret-sai," Andy said. His eyes flashed blue, then dimmed. He appeared to be smiling. To Roland, the robot seemed to have two personalities, one old-maidish, the other harmlessly cozening. The gunslinger liked neither, and understood why perfectly. He'd come to mistrust machinery of all kinds, and especially the kind that walked and talked.

"Well," Eisenhart said, "the broken leg usually hides in the last caper, but have on, if ye must."

They had on, and there were no broken legs. Both boys hit the haypile squarely, popped up laughing and looking at each other, then footraced for the kitchen with Oy running behind them. Appearing to herd them.

"It's wonderful how quickly children can become friends," Margaret Eisenhart said, but she didn't look like one contemplating something wonderful. She looked sad.

"Yes," Roland said. "Wonderful it is." He laid his purse across his lap, seemed on the verge of pulling the knot that anchored the laces, then didn't. "Which are your men good with?" he asked Eisenhart. "Bow or bah? For I know it's surely not the rifle or revolver."

"We favor the bah," Eisenhart said. "Fit the bolt, wind it, aim it, fire it, 'tis done."

Roland nodded. It was as he had expected. Not good, because the bah was rarely accurate at a distance greater than twenty-five yards, and that only on a still day. On one when a strong breeze was kicking up... or, gods help us, a gale...

But Eisenhart was looking at his wife. Looking at her with a kind of reluctant admiration. She stood with her eyebrows raised, looking back at her man. Looking him back a question. What was this? It surely had to do with the hand under the apron.

"Garn, tell im," Eisenhart said. Then he pointed an almost-angry finger at Roland, like the barrel of a pistol. "It changes nothing, though. Nothing! Say thankya!" This last with the lips drawn back in a kind of savage grin. Roland was more puzzled than ever, but he felt a faint stirring of hope. It might be false hope, probably would be, but anything was better than the worries and confusions - and the aches - that had beset him lately.

"Nay," Margaret said with maddening modesty. " 'Tis not my place to tell. To show, perhaps, but not to tell."

Eisenhart sighed, considered, then turned to Roland. "Ye danced the rice-dance," he said, "so ye know Lady Oriza."

Roland nodded. The Lady of the Rice, in some places considered a goddess, in others a heroine, in some, both.

"And ye know how she did away with Gray Dick, who killed her father?"

Roland nodded again.

TWO

According to the story - a good one that he must remember to tell Eddie, Susannah, and Jake, when (and if) there was once more time for storytelling - Lady Oriza invited Gray Dick, a famous outlaw prince, to a vast dinner party in Waydon, her castle by the River Send. She wanted to forgive him for the murder of her father, she said, for she had accepted the Man Jesus into her heart and such was according to His teachings.

Ye'll get me there and kill me, be I stupid enough to come, said Gray Dick.

Nay, nay, said the Lady Oriza, never think it. All weapons will be left outside the castle. And when we sit in the banqueting hall below, there will be only me, at one end of the table, and thee, at the other.

You'll conceal a dagger in your sleeve or a bola beneath your dress, said Gray Dick. And if you don't, I will.

Nay, nay, said the Lady Oriza, never think it, for we shall both be naked.

At this Gray Dick was overcome with lust, for Lady Oriza was fair. It excited him to think of his prick getting hard at the sight of her bare breasts and bush, and no breeches on him to conceal his excitement from her maiden's eye. And he thought he understood why she would make such a proposal. His haughty heart will undo him , Lady Oriza told her maid (whose name was Marian and who went on to have many fanciful adventures of her own).

The Lady was right. I've killed Lord Grenfall, wiliest lord in all the river baronies , Gray Dick told himself. And who is left to avenge him but one weak daughter" ? (Oh, but she was fair.) So she sues for peace. And maybe even for marriage, if she has audacity and imagnation as well as beauty.

So he accepted her offer. His men searched the banquet hall downstairs before he arrived and found no weapons - not on the table, not under the table, not behind the tapestries. What none of them could know was that for weeks before the banquet, Lady Oriza had practiced throwing a specially weighted dinner-plate. She did this for hours a day. She was athletically inclined to begin with, and her eyes were keen. Also, she hated Gray Dick with all her heart and had determined to make him pay no matter what the cost.

The dinner-plate wasn't just weighted; its rim had been sharpened. Dick's men overlooked this, as she and Marian had been sure they would. And so they banqueted, and what a strange banquet that must have been, with the laughing, handsome outlaw naked at one end of the table and the demurely smiling but exquisitely beautiful maiden thirty feet from him at the other end, equally naked. They toasted each other with Lord Grenfall's finest rough red. It infuriated the Lady to the point of madness to watch him slurp that exquisite country wine down as though it were water, scarlet drops rolling off his chin and splashing to his hairy chest, but she gave no sign; simply smiled coquettishly and sipped from her own glass. She could feel the weight of his eyes on her breasts. It was like having unpleasant bugs lumbering to and fro on her skin.

How long did this charade go on? Some tale-tellers had her putting an end to Gray Dick after the second toast. (His: May your beauty ever increase . Hers: May your first day in hell last ten thousand years, and may it be the shortest.) Others - the sort of spinners who enjoyed drawing out the suspense - recounted a meal of a dozen courses before Lady Oriza gripped the special plate, looking Gray Dick in the eyes and smiling at him while she turned it, feeling for the dull place on the rim where it would be safe to grip.

No matter how long the tale, it always ended the same way, with Lady Oriza flinging the plate. Little fluted channels had been carved on its underside, beneath the sharpened rim, to help it fly true. As it did, humming weirdly as it went, casting its fleeting shadow on the roast pork and turkey, the heaping bowls of vegetables, the fresh fruit piled on crystal serving dishes.

A moment after she flung the plate on its slightly rising course - her arm was still outstretched, her first finger and cocked thumb pointing at her father's assassin - Gray Dick's head flew out through the open door and into the foyer behind him. For a moment longer Gray Dick's body stood there with its penis pointing at her like an accusing finger. Then the dick shriveled and the Dick behind it crashed forward onto a huge roast of beef and a mountain of herbed rice.

Lady Oriza, whom Roland would hear referred to as the Lady of the Plate in some of his wanderings, raised her glass of wine and toasted the body. She said

THREE

"May your first day in hell last ten thousand years," Roland murmured.

Margaret nodded. "Aye, and let that one be the shortest. A terrible toast, but one I'd gladly give each of the Wolves. Each and every one!" Her visible hand clenched. In the fading red light she looked feverish and ill. "We had six, do ya. An even half-dozen. Has he told you why none of them are here, to help with the Reaptide slaughtering and penning? Has he told you that, gunslinger?"

"Margaret, there's no need," Eisenhart said. He shifted uncomfortably in his rocker.

"Ah, but mayhap there is. It goes back to what we were saying before. Mayhap ye pay a price for leaping, but sometimes ye pay a higher one for looking. Our children grew up free and clear, with no Wolves to worry about. I gave birth to my first two, Tom and Tessa, less than a month before they came last time. The others followed along, neat as peas out of a pod. The youngest be only fifteen, do ya not see it."

"Margaret - "

She ignored him. "But they'd not be's'lucky with their own children, and they knew it. And so they're gone. Some far north along the Arc, some far south. Looking for a place where the Wolves don't come."

She turned to Eisenhart, and although she spoke to Roland, it was her husband she looked at as she had her final word.

"One of every two; that's the Wolves' bounty. That's what they take every twenty-some, for many and many-a. Except for us. They took all of our children. Every... single... one." She leaned forward and tapped Roland's leg just above the knee with great emphasis. "Do ya not see it."

Silence fell on the back porch. The condemned steers in the slaughter-pen mooed moronically. From the kitchen came the sound of boy-laughter following some comment of Andy's.

Eisenhart had dropped his head. Roland could see nothing but the extravagant bush of his mustache, but he didn't need to see the man's face to know that he was either weeping or struggling very hard not to.

"I'd not make'ee feel bad for all the rice of the Arc," she said, and stroked her husband's shoulder with infinite tenderness.

"And they come back betimes, aye, which is more than the dead do, except in our dreams. They're not so old that they don't miss their mother, or have how-do-ye-do-it questions for their Da'. But they're gone, nevertheless. And that's the price of safety, as ye must ken." She looked down at Eisenhart for a moment, one hand on his shoulder and the other still beneath her apron. "Now tell how angry with me you are," she said, "for I'd know."

Eisenhart shook his head. "Not angry," he said in a muffled voice.

"And have'ee changed your mind?"

Eisenhart shook his head again.

"Stubborn old thing," she said, but she spoke with good-humored affection. "Stubborn as a stick, aye, and we all say thankya."

"I'm thinking about it," he said, still not looking up. "Still thinking, which is more than I expected at this late date -  usually I make up my mind and there's the end of it.

"Roland, I understand young Jake showed Overholser and the rest of em some shooting out in the woods. Might be we could show you something right here that'd raise your eyebrows. Maggie, go in and get your Oriza."

"No need," she said, at last taking her hand from beneath her apron, "for I brought it out with me, and here 'tis."

FOUR

It was a plate both Detta and Mia would have recognized, a blue plate with a delicate webbed pattern. A forspecial plate. After a moment Roland recognized the webbing for what it was: young oriza, the seedling rice plant. When sai Eisenhart tapped her knuckles on the plate, it gave out a peculiar high ringing. It looked like china, but wasn't. Glass, then? Some sort of glass? He held his hand out for it with the solemn, respectful mien of one who knows and respects weapons. She hesitated, biting the corner of her lip. Roland reached into his holster, which he'd strapped back on before the noon meal outside the church, and pulled his revolver. He held it out to her, butt first.

"Nay," she said, letting the word out on a long breath of sigh. "No need to offer me your shooter as a hostage, Roland. I reckon if Vaughn trusts you at the house, I c'n trust you with my Oriza. But mind how you touch, or you'll lose another finger, and I think you could ill afford that, for I see you're already two shy on your right hand."

A single look at the blue plate - the sai's Oriza - made it clear how wise that warning was. At the same time, Roland felt a bright spark of excitement and appreciation. It had been long years since he'd seen a new weapon of worth, and never one like this.

The plate was metal, not glass - some light, strong alloy. It was the size of an ordinary dinner-plate, a foot (and a bit more) in diameter. Three quarters of the edge had been sharpened to suicidal keenness.

"There's never a question of where to grip, even if ye're in a hurry," Margaret said. "For, do'ee see - "

"Yes," Roland said in a tone of deepest admiration. Two of the rice-stalks crossed in what could have been the Great Letter Zn, which by itself means both zi (eternity) and now . At the point where these stalks crossed (only a sharp eye would pick them out of the bigger pattern to begin with), the rim of the plate was not only dull but slightly thicker. Good to grip.

Roland turned the plate over. Beneath, in the center, was a small metal pod. To Jake, it might have looked like the plastic pencil-sharpener he'd taken to school in his pocket as a first-grader. To Roland, who had never seen a pencil-sharpener, it looked a little like the abandoned egg-case of some insect.

"That makes the whistling noise when the plate flies, do ya ken," she said. She had seen Roland's honest admiration and was reacting to it, her color high and her eye bright. Roland had heard that tone of eager explanation many times before, but not for a long time now.

"It has no other purpose?"

"None," she said. "But it must whistle, for it's part of the story, isn't it?"

Roland nodded. Of course it was.

The Sisters of Oriza, Margaret Eisenhart said, was a group of women who liked to help others -

"And gossip amongst theirselves," Eisenhart growled, but he sounded good-humored.

"Aye, that too," she allowed.

They cooked for funerals and festivals (it was the Sisters who had put on the previous night's banquet at the Pavilion). They sometimes held sewing circles and quilting bees after a family had lost its belongings to fire or when one of the river-floods came every six or eight years and drowned the smallholders closest to Devar-Tete Whye. It was the Sisters who kept the Pavilion well-tended and the Town Gathering Hall well swept on the inside and well-kept on the outside. They put on dances for the young people, and chaperoned them. They were sometimes hired by the richer folk ("Such as the Tooks and their kin, do ya," she said) to cater wedding celebrations, and such affairs were always fine, the talk of the Calla for months afterward, sure. Among themselves they did gossip, aye, she'd not deny it; they also played cards, and Points, and Castles.

"And you throw the plate," Roland said.

"Aye," said she, "but ye must understand we only do it for the fun of the thing. Hunting's men's work, and they do fine with the bah." She was stroking her husband's shoulder again, this time a bit nervously, Roland thought. He also thought that if the men really did do fine with the bah, she never would have come out with that pretty, deadly thing held under her apron in the first place. Nor would Eisenhart have encouraged her.

Roland opened his tobacco-pouch, took out one of Rosalita's cornshuck pulls, and drifted it toward the plate's sharp edge. The square of cornshuck fluttered to the porch a moment later, cut neatly in two. Only for the fun of the thing , Roland thought, and almost smiled.

"What metal?" he asked. "Does thee know?"

She raised her eyebrows slightly at this form of address but didn't comment on it. "Titanium is what Andy calls it. It comes from a great old factory building, far north, in Calla Sen Chre.

There are many ruins there. I've never been, but I've heard the tales. It sounds spooky."

Roland nodded. "And the plates - how are they made? Does Andy do it?"

She shook her head. "He can't or won't, I know not which. It's the ladies of Calla Sen Chre who make them, and send them to the Callas all round about. Although Divine is as far south as that sort of trading reaches, I think."

"The ladies make these," Roland mused. "The ladies ."

"Somewhere there's a machine that still makes em, that's all it is," Eisenhart said. Roland was amused at his tone of stiff defensiveness. "Comes down to no more than pushing a button, I 'magine."

Margaret, looking at him with a woman's smile, said nothing to this, either for or against. Perhaps she didn't know, but she certainly knew the politics that keep a marriage sweet.

"So there are Sisters north and south of here along the Arc," Roland said. "And all of them throw the plate."

"Aye - from Calla Sen Chre to Calla Divine south of us. Farther south or north, I don't know. We like to help and we like to talk. We throw our plates once a month, in memory of how Lady Oriza did for Gray Dick, but few of us are any good at it."

"Are you good at it, sai?"

She was silent, biting at the corner of her lip again.

"Show him," Eisenhart growled. "Show him and be done."

FIVE

They walked down the steps, the rancher's wife leading the way, Eisenhart behind her, Roland third. Behind them the kitchen door opened and banged shut.

"Gods-a-glory, missus Eisenhart's gonna throw the dish!" Benny Slightman cried gleefully. "Jake! You won't believe it!"

"Send em back in, Vaughn," she said. "They don't need to see this."

"Nar, let em look," Eisenhart said. "Don't hurt a boy to see a woman do well."

"Send them back, Roland, aye?" She looked at him, flushed and flustered and very pretty. To Roland she looked ten years younger than when she'd come out on the porch, but he wondered how she'd fling in such a state. It was something he much wanted to see, because ambushing was brutal work, quick and emotional.

"I agree with your husband," he said. "I'd let them stay."

"Have it as you like," she said. Roland saw she was actually pleased, that she wanted an audience, and his hope grew. He thought it increasingly likely that this pretty middle-aged wife with her small breasts and salt-and-pepper hair had a hunter's heart. Not a gunslinger's heart, but at this point he would settle for a few hunters - a few killers  - male or female.

She marched toward the barn. When they were fifty yards from the stuffy-guys flanking the barn door, Roland touched her shoulder and made her stop.

"Nay," she said, "this is too far."

"I've seen you fling as far and half again," her husband said, and stood firm in the face of her angry look. "So I have."

"Not with a gunslinger from the Line of Eld standing by my right elbow, you haven't," she said, but she stood where she was.

Roland went to the barn door and took the grinning sharp-root head from the stuffy on the left side. He went into the barn. Here was a stall filled with freshly picked sharproot, and beside it one of potatoes. He took one of the potatoes and set it atop the stuffy-guy's shoulders, where the sharproot had been. It was a good-sized spud, but the contrast was still comic; the stuffy-guy now looked like Mr. Tinyhead in a carnival show or street-fair.

"Oh, Roland, no!" she cried, sounding genuinely shocked. "I could never!"

"I don't believe you," he said, and stood aside. "Throw."

For a moment he diought she wouldn't. She looked around for her husband. If Eisenhart had still been standing beside her, Roland thought, she would have thrust the plate into his hands and run for the house and never mind if he cut himself on it, either. But Vaughn Eisenhart had withdrawn to the foot of the steps. The boys stood above him, Benny Slightman watching with mere interest, Jake with closer attention, his brows drawn together and the smile now gone from his face.

"Roland, I - "

"None of it, missus, I beg. Your talk of leaping was all very fine, but now I'd see you do it. Throw ."

She recoiled a little, eyes widening, as if she had been slapped. Then she turned to face the barn door and drew her right hand above her left shoulder. The plate glimmered in the late light, which was now more pink than red. Her lips had thinned to a white line. For a moment all the world held still.

"Riza !" she cried in a shrill, furious voice, and cast her arm forward. Her hand opened, the index finger pointing precisely along the path the plate would take. Of all of them in the yard (the cowpokes had also stopped to watch), only Roland's eyes were sharp enough to follow the flight of the dish.

True ! he exulted. True as ever was !

The plate gave a kind of moaning howl as it bolted above the dirt yard. Less than two seconds after it had left her hand, the potato lay in two pieces, one by the stuffy-guy's gloved right hand and the other by its left. The plate itself stuck in the side of the barn door, quivering.

The boys raised a cheer. Benny hoisted his hand as his new friend had taught him, and Jake slapped him a high five.

"Great going, sai Eisenhart!" Jake called.

"Good hit! Say thankya!" Benny added.

Roland observed the way the woman's lips drew back from her teeth at this hapless, well-meant praise - she looked like a horse that has seen a snake. "Boys," he said, "I'd go inside now, were I you."

Benny was bewildered. Jake, however, took another look at Margaret Eisenhart and understood. You did what you had to... and then the reaction set in. "Come on, Ben," he said.

"But - "

"Come on." Jake took his new friend by the shirt and tugged him back toward the kitchen door.

Roland let the woman stay where she was for a moment, head down, trembling with reaction. Strong color still blazed in her cheeks, but everywhere else her skin had gone as pale as milk. He thought she was struggling not to vomit.

He went to the barn door, grasped the plate at the grasping-place, and pulled. He was astounded at how much effort it took before the plate first wiggled and then pulled loose. He brought it back to her, held it out. "Thy tool."

For a moment she didn't take it, only looked at him with a species of bright hate. "Why do you mock me, Roland? How do'ee know Vaughn took me from the Manni Clan? Tell us that, I beg."

It was the rose, of course - an intuition left by the touch of the rose - and it was also the tale of her face, which was a womanly version of the old Henchick's. But how he knew what he knew was no part of this woman's business, and he only shook his head. "Nay. But I do not mock thee."

Margaret Eisenhart abruptly seized Roland by the neck. Her grip was dry and so hot her skin felt feverish. She pulled his ear to her uneasy, twitching mouth. He thought he could smell every bad dream she must have had since deciding to leave her people for Calla Bryn Sturgis's big rancher.

"I saw thee speak to Henchick last night," she said. "Will'ee speak to him more? Ye will, won't you?"

Roland nodded, transfixed by her grip. The strength of it. The little puffs of air against his ear. Did a lunatic hide deep down inside everyone, even such a woman as this? He didn't know.

"Good. Say thankya. Tell him Margaret of the Redpath Clan does fine with her heathen man, aye, fine still." Her grip tightened. "Tell him she regrets nothing! . Will'ee do that for me?"

"Aye, lady, if you like."

She snatched the plate from him, fearless of its lethal edge. Having it seemed to steady her. She looked at him from eyes in which tears swam, unshed. "Is it the cave ye spoke of with my Da'? The Doorway Cave?"

Roland nodded.

"What would ye visit on us, ye chary gunstruck man?"

Eisenhart joined them. He looked uncertainly at his wife, who had endured exile from her people for his sake. For a moment she looked at him as though she didn't know him.

"I only do as ka wills," Roland said.

"Ka!" she cried, and her lip lifted. A sneer transformed her good looks to an ugliness that was almost starding. It would have frightened the boys. "Every troublemaker's excuse! Put it up your bum with the rest of the dirt!"

"I do as ka wills and so will you," Roland said.

She looked at him, seeming not to comprehend. Roland took the hot hand that had gripped him and squeezed it, not quite to the point of pain.

"And so will you."

She met his gaze for a moment, then dropped her eyes. "Aye," she muttered. "Oh aye, so do we all." She ventured to look at him again. "Will ye give Henchick my message?"

"Aye, lady, as I said."

The darkening dooryard was silent except for the distant call of a rustic The cowpokes still leaned at the remuda fence. Roland ambled over to them.

"Evening, gents."

"Hope ya do well," one said, and touched his forehead.

"May you do better," Roland said. "Missus threw the plate, and she threw it well, say aye?"

"Say thankya," another of them agreed. "No rust on the missus."

"No rust," Roland agreed. "And will I tell you something now, gents? A word to tuck beneath your hats, as we do say?"

They looked at him warily.

Roland looked up, smiled at the sky. Then looked back at them. "Set my watch and warrant on't. You might want to speak of it. Tell what you saw."

They watched him cautiously, not liking to admit to this.

"Speak of it and I'll kill every one of you," Roland said. "Do you understand me?"

Eisenhart touched his shoulder. "Roland, surely - "

The gunslinger shrugged his hand off without looking at him. "Do you understand me?"

They nodded.

"And believe me?"

They nodded again. They looked frightened. Roland was glad to see it. They were right to be afraid. "Say thankya."

"Say thanks," one of them repeated. He had broken a sweat.

"Aye," said the second.

"Thankya big-big," said the third, and shot a nervous stream of tobacco to one side.

Eisenhart tried again. "Roland, hear me, I beg - "

But Roland didn't. His mind was alight with ideas. All at once he saw thieir course with perfect clarity. Their course on this side, at least. "Where's the robot?" he asked the rancher.

"Andy? Went in the kitchen with the boys, I think."

"Good. Do you have a stockline office in there?" He nodded toward the barn.

"Aye."

"Let's go there, then. You, me, and your missus."

"I'd like to take her into the house a bit," Eisenhart said. I'd like to take her anywhere that's away from you , Roland read in his eyes.

"Our palaver won't be long," Roland said, and with perfect honesty. He'd already seen everything he needed.

SIX

The stockline office only had a single chair, the one behind the desk. Margaret took it. Eisenhart sat on a footstool. Roland squatted on his hunkers with his back to the wall and his purse open before him. He had shown them the twins' map. Eisenhart hadn't immediately grasped what Roland had pointed out (might not grasp it even now), but the woman did. Roland thought it no wonder she hadn't been able to stay wit the Manni. The Manni were peaceful. Margaret Eisenhart was not. Not once you got below her surface, at any rate.

"You'll keep this to yourselves," he said.

"Or thee'll kill us, like our cowpokes?" she asked.

Roland gave her a patient look, and she colored beneath it.

"I'm sorry, Roland. I'm upset. It comes of throwing the plate in hot blood."

Eisenhart put an arm around her. This time she accepted it gladly, and laid her head on his shoulder.

"Who else in your group can throw as well as that?" Roland asked. "Any?"

"Zalia Jaffords," she said at once.

"Say true?"

She nodded emphatically. "Zalia could have cut that tater in two ten-for-ten, at twenty paces farther back."

"Others?"

"Sarey Adams, wife of Diego. And Rosalita Munoz."

Roland raised his eyebrows at that.

"Aye," she said. "Other than Zalia, Rosie's best." A brief pause. "And me, I suppose."

Roland felt as if a huge weight had rolled off his back. He'd been convinced they'd somehow have to bring back weapons from New York or find them on the east side of the river. Now it looked as if that might not be necessary. Good. They had other business in New York - business involving Calvin Tower. He didn't want to mix the two unless he absolutely had to.

"I'd see you four women at the Old Fella's rectory-house. And just you four." His eyes flicked briefly to Eisenhart, then back to Eisenhart's sai. "No husbands."

"Now wait just a damn minute," Eisenhart said.

Roland held up his hand. "Nothing's been decided yet."

"It's the way it's not been decided I don't care for," Eisenhart said.

"Hush a minute," Margaret said. "When would you see us?"

Roland calculated. Twenty-four days left, perhaps only twenty-three, and still much left to see. And there was the thing hidden in the Old Fella's church, that to deal with, too. And the old Manni, Henchick...

Yet in the end, he knew, the day would come and things would play out with shocking suddenness. They always did. Five minutes, ten at most, and all would be finished, for good or ill.

The trick was to be ready when those few minutes came around.

"Ten days from now," he said. "In the evening. I'd see the four of you in competition, turn and turn about."

"All right," she said. "That much we can do. But Roland... I'll not throw so much as a single plate or raise a single finger against the Wolves if my husband still says no."

"I understand," Roland said, knowing she would do as he said, like it or not. When the time came they all would.

There was one small window in the office wall, dirty and festooned with cobwebs but clear enough for them to be able to see Andy marching across the yard, his electric eyes flashing on and off in the deepening twilight. He was humming to himself.

"Eddie says robots are programmed to do certain tasks," he said. "Andy does the tasks you bid him?"

"Mostly, yes," Eisenhart said. "Not always. And he's not always around, ye ken."

"Hard to believe he was built to do no more than sing foolish songs and tell horoscopes," Roland mused.

"Perhaps the Old People gave him hobbies," Margaret Eisenhart said, "and now that his main tasks are gone - lost in time, do ya ken - he concentrates on the hobbies."

"You think the Old People made him."

"Who else?" Vaughn Eisenhart asked. Andy was gone now, and the back yard was empty.

"Aye, who else," Roland said, still musing. "Who else would have the wit and the tools? But the Old People were gone two thousand years before the Wolves began raiding into the Calla. Two thousand or more. So what I'd like to know is who or what programmed Andy not to talk about them, except to tell you folks when they're coming . And here's another question, not as interesting as that but still curious: why does he tell you that much if he cannot - or will not - tell you anything else?"

Eisenhart and his wife were looking at each other, thunderstruck. They'd not gotten past the first part of what Roland had said. The gunslinger wasn't surprised, but he was a little disappointed in them. Really, there was much here that was obvious. If, that was, one set one's wits to work. In fairness to the Eisenharts, Jaffordses, and Overholsers of the Calla, he supposed, straight thinking wasn't so easy when your babbies were at stake.

There was a knock at the door. Eisenhart called, "Come!"

It was Ben Slightman. "Stock's all put to bed, boss." He took off his glasses and polished them on his shirt. "And the boys're off with Benny's tent. Andy was stalkin em close, so that's well." Slightman looked at Roland. "It's early for rock-cats, but if one were to come, Andy'd give my boy at least one shot at it with his bah - he's been told so and comes back 'Order recorded.' If Benny were to miss, Andy'd get between the boys and the cat. He's programmed strictly for defense and we've never been able to change that, but if the cat were to keep coming - "

"Andy'd rip it to pieces," Eisenhart said. He spoke with a species of gloomy satisfaction.

"Fast, is he?" Roland asked.

"Yer-bugger," Slightman said. "Don't look it, do he, all tall and gangly like he is? But aye, he can move like greased lightning when he wants to. Faster than any rock-cat. We believe he must run on ant-nomics."

"Very likely," Roland said absently.

"Never mind that," Eisenhart said, "but listen, Ben - why d'you suppose it is that Andy won't talk about the Wolves?"

"His programming - "

"Aye, but it's as Roland pointed out to us just before'ee came in - and we should have seen it for ourselves long before this - if the Old People set him a-going and then the Old People died out or moved on... long before the Wolves showed themselves... do you see the problem?"

Slightman the Elder nodded, then put his glasses back on. "Must have been something like the Wolves in the elden days, don't you think? Enough like em so Andy can't tell em apart. It's all I can figure."

Is it really ? Roland thought.

He produced the Tavery twins' map, opened it, and tapped an arroyo in the hill country northeast of town. It wound its way deeper and deeper into those hills before ending in one of the Calla's old garnet mines. This one was a shaft that went thirty feet into a hillside and then stopped. The place wasn't really much like Eyebolt Canyon in Mejis (there was no thinny in the arroyo, for one thing), but there was one crucial similarity: both were dead ends. And, Roland knew, a man will try to take service again from that which has served him once. That he should pick this arroyo, this dead-end mineshaft, for his ambush of the Wolves made perfect sense. To Eddie, to Susannah, to the Eisenharts, and now to the Eisenharts' foreman. It would make sense to Sarey Adams and Rosalita Munoz. It would make sense to the Old Fella. He would disclose this much of his plan to others, and it would make sense to them, as well.

And if things were left out? If some of what he said was a lie?

If the Wolves got wind of the lie and believed it?

That would be good, wouldn't it? Good if they lunged and snapped in the right direction, but at the wrong thing?

Yes, but I'll need to trust someone with the whole truth eventually. Who? '

Not Susannah, because Susannah was now two again, and he didn't trust the other one.

Not Eddie, because Eddie might let something crucial slip to Susannah, and then Mia would know.

Not Jake, because Jake had become fast friends with Benny Slightman.

He was on his own again, and this condition had never felt more lonely to him.

"Look," he said, tapping the arroyo. "Here's a place you might think of, Slightman. Easy to get in, not so easy to get back out. Suppose we were to take all the children of a certain age and tuck them away safe in this little bit of a mine?"

He saw understanding begin to dawn in Slightman's eyes. Something else, too. Hope, maybe.

"If we hide the children, they know where," Eisenhart said. "It's as if they smell em, like ogres in a kid's cradle-story."

"So I'm told," Roland said. "What I suggest is that we could use that."

"Make em bait, you mean. Gunslinger, that's hard."

Roland, who had no intention of putting the Calla's children in the abandoned garnet mine - or anywhere near it - nodded his head. "Hard world sometimes, Eisenhart."

"Say thankya," Eisenhart replied, but his face was grim. He touched the map. "Could work. Aye, could work... if ye could suck all the Wolves in."

Wherever the children wind up, I'll need help putting them there , Roland thought. There'll have to be people who know where to go and what to do. A plan. But not yet. For now I can play the game I'm playing. It's like Castles. Because someone's hiding .

Did he know that? He did not.

Did he smell it? Aye, he did.

Now it's twenty-four , Roland thought. Twenty-four days until the Wolves .

It would have to be enough.

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