Wolves of the Calla
Part Three The Wolves Chapter V: The Meeting of the Folken

 H.M. Ward

  • Background:
  • Text Font:
  • Text Size:
  • Line Height:
  • Line Break Height:
  • Frame:
Tian Jaffords had never been more frightened in his life than he was as he stood on the stage in the Pavilion, looking down at the folken of Calla Bryn Sturgis. He knew there were likely no more than five hundred - six hundred at the very outside - but to him it looked like a multitude, and their taut silence was unnerving. He looked at his wife for comfort and found none there. Zalia's face looked thin and dark and pinched, the face of an old woman rather than one still well within her childbearing years.
Nor did the look of this late afternoon help him find calm. Overhead the sky was a pellucid, cloudless blue, but it was too dark for five o' the clock. There was a huge bank of clouds in the southwest, and the sun had passed behind them just as he climbed the steps to the stage. It was what his Gran-pere would have called weirding weather; omenish , say thankya. In the constant darkness that was Thunderclap, lightning flashed like great sparklights.
Had I known it would come to this, I'd never have started it a-going , he thought wildly. And this time there'll be no Pere Callahan to haul my poor old ashes out of the fire . Although Callahan was there, standing with Roland and his friends - they of the hard calibers - with his arms folded on his plain black shirt with the notched collar and his Man Jesus cross hanging above.
He told himself not to be foolish, that Callahan would help , and the outworlders would help, as well. They were there to help. The code they followed demanded that they must help, even if it meant their destruction and the end of whatever quest they were on. He told himself that all he needed to do was introduce Roland, and Roland would come. Once before, the gunslinger had stood on this stage and danced the commala and won their hearts. Did Tian doubt that Roland would win their hearts again? In truth, Tian did not. What he was afraid of in his heart was that this time it would be a death-dance instead of a life-dance. Because death was what this man and his friends were about; it was their bread and wine. It was the sherbet they took to clear their palates when the meal was done. At that first meeting - could it have been less than a month ago? - Tian had spoken out of angry desperation, but a month was long enough to count the cost. What if this was a mistake? What if the Wolves burned the entire Calla flat with their light-sticks, took the children they wanted one final time, and exploded all the ones that were left - old, young, in the middle - with their whizzing balls of death?
They stood waiting for him to begin, the gathered Calla. Eisenharts and Overholsers and Javiers and Tooks without number (although no twins among these last of the age the Wolves liked, aye-no, such lucky Tooks they were); Telford standing with the men and his plump but hard-faced wife with the women; Strongs and Rossiters and Slightmans and Hands and Rosarios and Posellas; the Manni once again bunched together like a dark stain of ink, Henchick their patriarch standing with young Cantab, whom all the children liked so well; Andy, another favorite of the kiddies, standing off to one side with his skinny metal arms akimbo and his blue electric eyes flashing in the gloom; the Sisters of Oriza bunched together like birds on fencewire (Tian's wife among them); and the cowboys, the hired men, the dayboys, even old Bernardo, the town tosspot.
To Tian's right, those who had carried the feather shuffled a bit uneasily. In ordinary circumstances, one set of twins was plenty to take the opopanax feather; in most cases, people knew well in advance what was up, and carrying the feadier was nothing but a formality. This time (it had been Margaret Eisenhart's idea), three sets of twins had gone together with the hallowed feather, carrying it from town to smallhold to ranch to farm in a bucka driven by Cantab, who sat unusually silent and songless up front, clucking along a matched set of brown mules that needed precious little help from the likes of him. Oldest at twenty-three were the Haggengood twins, born the year of the last Wolf-raid (and ugly as sin by the lights of most folks, although precious hard workers, say thankya). Next came the Tavery twins, those beautiful map-drawing town brats. Last (and youngest, although eldest of Tian's brood) came Heddon and Hedda. And it was Hedda who got him going. Tian caught her eye and saw that his good (although plain-faced) daughter had sensed her father's fright and was on the verge of tears herself.
Eddie and Jake weren't the only ones who heard the voices of others in their heads; Tian now heard the voice of his Gran-pere. Not as Jamie was now, doddering and nearly toothless, but as he had been twenty years before: old but still capable of clouting you over the River Road if you sassed back or dawdled over a hard pull. Jamie Jaffords who had once stood against the Wolves. This Tian had from time to time doubted, but he doubted it no longer. Because Roland believed.
Garn, then ! snarled the voice in his mind. What is it fashes and diddles thee 's'slow, oafing? Tis nobbut to say his name and stand aside, ennit? Then fergood or nis, ye can let him do a'rest .
Still Tian looked out over the silent crowd a moment longer, their bulk hemmed in tonight by torches that didn't change -  for this was no party - but only glared a steady orange. Because he wanted to say something, perhaps needed to say something. If only to acknowledge that he was partly to credit for this. For good or for nis.
In the eastern darkness, lightning fired off silent explosions.
Roland, standing with his arms folded like the Pere, caught Tian's eye and nodded slightly to him. Even by warm torchlight, the gunslinger's blue gaze was cold. Almost as cold as Andy's. Yet it was all the encouragement Tian needed.
He took the feather and held it before him. Even the crowd's breathing seemed to still. Somewhere far overtown, a rustie cawed as if to hold back the night.
"Not long since I stood in yon Gathering Hall and told'ee what I believe," Tian said. "That when the Wolves come, they don't just take our children but our hearts and souls. Each time they steal and we stand by, they cut us a little deeper. If you cut a tree deep enough, it dies. Cut a town deep enough, that dies, too."
The voice of Rosalita Munoz, childless her whole life, rang out in the fey dimness of the day with clear ferocity: "Say true, say thankya! Hear him, folkenl Hear him very well!"
"Hear him, hear him, hear him well" ran through the assembly.
"Pere stood up that night and told us there were gunslingers coming from the northwest, coming through Mid-Forest along the Path of the Beam. Some scoffed, but Pere spoke true."
"Say thankya," they replied. "Pere said true." And a woman's voice: "Praise Jesus! Praise Mary, mother of God!"
"They've been among us all these days since. Any who's wanted to speak to em has spoke to em. They have promised nothing but to help - "
"And'll move on, leaving bloody ruin behind em, if we're foolish enough to allow it!" Eben Took roared.
There was a shocked gasp from the crowd. As it died, Wayne Overholser said: "Shut up, ye great mouth-organ."
Took turned to look at Overholser, the Calla's big farmer and Took's best customer, with a look of gaping surprise.
Tian said: "Their dinh is Roland Deschain, of Gilead." They knew this, but the mention of such legendary names still provoked a low, almost moaning murmur. "From In-World that was. Would you hear him? What say you, folken ?"
Their response quickly rose to a shout. "Hear him! Hear him! We would hear him to the last! Hear him well, say thankya !" And a soft, rhythmic crumping sound that Tian could not at first identify. Then he realized what it was and almost smiled. This was what the tromping of shor'boots sounded like, not on the boards of the Gathering Hall, but out here on Lady Riza's grass.
Tian held out his hand. Roland came forward. The tromping sound grew louder as he did. Women were joining in, doing the best they could in their soft town shoes. Roland mounted the steps. Tian gave him the feather and left the stage, taking Hedda's hand and motioning for the rest of the twins to go before him. Roland stood with the feather held before him, gripping its ancient lacquered stalk with hands now bearing only eight digits. At last the tromping of the shoes and shor'boots died away. The torches sizzled and spat, illuminating the upturned faces of the folken , showing their hope and fear; showing both very well. The rustie called and was still. In the east, big lightning sliced up the darkness.
The gunslinger stood facing them.
For what seemed a very long time looking was all he did. In each glazed and frightened eye he read the same thing. He had seen it many times before, and it was easy reading. These people were hungry. They'd fain buy something to eat, fill their restless bellies. He remembered the pieman who walked the streets of Gilead low-town in the hottest days of summer, and how his mother had called him seppe-sai on account of how sick such pies could make people. Seppe-sai meant the death-seller.
Aye , he thought, but I and my friends don't charge .
At this thought, his face lit in a smile. It rolled years off his craggy map, and a sigh of nervous relief came from the crowd. He started as he had before: "We are well-met in the Calla, hear me, I beg."
"You have opened to us. We have opened to you. Is it not so?"
"Aye, gunslinger!" Vaughn Eisenhart called back. " 'Tis!"
"Do you see us for what we are, and accept what we do?"
It was Henchick of the Manni who answered this time. "Aye, Roland, by the Book and say thankya. Tare of Eld, White come to stand against Black."
This time the crowd's sigh was long. Somewhere near the back, a woman began to sob.
"Caila-folken , do you seek aid and succor of us?"
Eddie stiffened. This question had been asked of many individuals during their weeks in Calla Bryn Sturgis, but he thought to ask it here was extremely risky. What if they said no?
A moment later Eddie realized he needn't have worried; in sizing up his audience, Roland was as shrewd as ever. Some did in fact say no - a smattering of Haycoxes, a peck of Tooks, and a small cluster of Telfords led the antis - but most of the folken roared out a hearty and immediate AYE, SAY THANKYA ! A few others - Overholser was the most prominent - said nothing either way. Eddie thought that in most cases, this would have been the wisest move. The most politic move, anyway. But this wasn't most cases; it was the most extraordinary moment of choice most of these people would ever face. If the Ka-Tet of Nineteen won against the Wolves, the people of this town would remember those who said no and those who said nothing. He wondered idly if Wayne Dale Overholser would still be the big farmer in these parts a year from now.
But then Roland opened the palaver, and Eddie turned his entire attention toward him. His admiring attention. Growing up where and how he had, Eddie had heard plenty of lies. Had told plenty himself, some of them very good ones. But by the time Roland reached the middle of his spiel, Eddie realized he had never been in the presence of a true genius of mendacity until this early evening in Calla Bryn Sturgis. And -
Eddie looked around, then nodded, satisfied.
And they were swallowing every word.
"Last time I was on this stage before you," Roland began, "I danced the commala. Tonight - "
George Telford interrupted. He was too oily for Eddie's taste, and too sly by half, but he couldn't fault the man's courage, speaking up as he did when the tide was so clearly running in the other direction.
"Aye, we remember, ye danced it well! How dance ye the mortata, Roland, tell me that, I beg."
Disapproving murmurs from the crowd.
"Doesn't matter how I dance it," Roland said, not in the least discommoded, "for my dancing days in the Calla are done. We have work in this town, I and mine. Ye've made us welcome, and we say thankya. Ye've bid us on, sought our aid and succor, so now I bid ye to listen very well. In less of a week come the Wolves."
There was a sigh of agreement. Time might have grown slippery, but even low folken could still hold onto five days' worth of it.
"On the night before they're due, I'd have every Calla twin-child under the age of seventeen there." Roland pointed off to the left, where the Sisters of Oriza had put up a tent. Tonight there were a good many children in there, although by no means the hundred or so at risk. The older had been given the task of tending the younger for the duration of the meeting, and one or another of the Sisters periodically checked to make sure all was yet fine.
"That tent won't hold em all, Roland," Ben Slightman said.
Roland smiled. "But a bigger one will, Ben, and I reckon the Sisters can find one."
"Aye, and give em a meal they won't ever forget!" Margaret Eisenhart called out bravely. Good-natured laughter greeted this, then sputtered before it caught. Many in the crowd were no doubt reflecting that if the Wolves won after all, half the children who spent Wolf's Eve on the Green wouldn't be able to remember their own names a week or two later, let alone what they'd eaten.
"I'd sleep em here so we can get an early start the next morning," Roland said. "From all I've been told, there's no way to know if the Wolves will come early, late, or in the middle of the day. We'd look the fools of the world if they were to come extra early and catch em right here, in the open."
"What's to keep em from coming a day early?" Eben Took called out truculently. "Or at midnight on what you call Wolf's Eve?"
"They can't," Roland said simply. And, based on Jamie Jaffords's testimony, they were almost positive this was true. The old man's story was his reason for letting Andy and Ben Slightman run free for the next five days and nights. "They come from afar, and not all their traveling is on horseback. Their schedule is fixed far in advance."
"How do'ee know?" Louis Haycox asked.
"Better I not tell," Roland said. "Mayhap the Wolves have long ears."
A considering silence met this.
"On the same night - Wolf's Eve - I'd have a dozen bucka wagons here, the biggest in the Calla, to draw the children out to the north of town. I'll appoint the drivers. There'll also be child-minders to go with em, and stay with em when the time comes. And ye needn't ask me where they'll be going; it's best we not speak of that, either."
Of course most of them thought they already knew where the children would be taken: the old Gloria. Word had a way of getting around, as Roland well knew. Ben Slightman had thought a little further - to the Redbird Two, south of the Gloria - and that was also fine.
George Telford cried out: "Don't listen to this, folken , I beg ye! And even if'ee do listen, for your souls and the life of this town, don't do it! What he's saying is madness! We've tried to hide our children before, and it doesn't work! But even if it did, they'd surely come and burn this town for vengeance' sake, burn it flat - "
"Silence, ye coward." It was Henchick, his voice as dry as a whipcrack.
Telford would have said more regardless, but his eldest son took his arm and made him stop. It was just as well. The clomping of the shor'boots had begun again. Telford looked at Eisenhart unbelievingly, his thought as clear as a shout: Ye can't mean to be part of this madness, can ye ?
The big rancher shook his head. "No point looking at me so, George. I stand with my wife, and she stands with the Eld."
Applause greeted this. Roland waited for it to quiet.
"Rancher Telford says true. The Wolves likely will know where the children have been bunkered. And when they come, my ka-tet will be there to greet them. It won't be the first time we've stood against such as they."
Roars of approval. More soft clumping of boots. Some rhythmic applause. Telford and Eben Took looked about with wide eyes, like men discovering they had awakened in a lunatic asylum.
When the Pavilion was quiet again, Roland said: "Some from town have agreed to stand with us, folka with good weapons. Again, it's not a thing you need to know about just now." But of course the feminine construction told those who didn't already know about the Sisters of Oriza a great deal. Eddie once more had to marvel at the way he was leading them; cozy wasn't in it. He glanced at Susannah, who rolled her eyes and gave him a smile. But the hand she put on his arm was cold. She wanted this to be over. Eddie knew exactly how she felt.
Telford tried one last time. "People, hear me! All this has been tried before !"
It was Jake Chambers who spoke up. "It hasn't been tried by gunslingers, sai Telford."
A fierce roar of approval met this. There was more stamping and clapping. Roland finally had to raise his hands to quiet it.
"Most of the Wolves will go to where they think the children are, and we'll deal with them there," he said. "Smaller groups may indeed raid the farms or ranches. Some may come into town. And aye, there may be some burning."
They listened silently and respectfully, nodding, arriving ahead of him to the next point. As he had wanted them to.
"A burned building can be replaced. A roont child cannot."
"Aye," said Rosalita. "Nor a roont heart."
There were murmurs of agreement, mostly from the women. In Calla Bryn Sturgis (as in most other places), men in a state of sobriety did not much like to talk about their hearts.
"Hear me now, for I'd tell you at least this much more: We know exactly what these Wolves are. Jamie Jaffords has told us what we already suspected."
There were murmurs of surprise. Heads turned. Jamie, standing beside his grandson, managed to straighten his curved back for a moment or two and actually puff up his sunken chest. Eddie only hoped the old buzzard would hold his peace over what came next. If he got muddled and contradicted the tale Roland was about to tell, their job would become much harder. At the very least it would mean grabbing Slightman and Andy early. And if Finli o' Tego - the voice Slightman reported to from the Dogan - didn't hear from these two again before the day of the Wolves, there would be suspicions. Eddie felt movement in the hand on his arm. Susannah had just crossed her fingers.
"There aren't living creatures beneath the masks," Roland said. "The Wolves are the undead servants of the vampires who rule Thunderclap."
An awed murmur greeted this carefully crafted bit of claptrap.
"They're what my friends Eddie, Susannah, and Jake call zombis . They can't be killed by bow, bah, or bullet unless struck in the brain or the heart." Roland tapped the left side of his chest for emphasis. "And of course when they come on their raids, they come wearing heavy armor under their clothes."
Henchick was nodding. Several of the other older men and women - folken who well remembered the Wolves coming not just once before but twice - were doing the same. "It explains a good deal," he said. "But how - "
"To strike them in the brain is beyond our abilities, because of the helmets they wear under their hoods," Roland said. "But we saw such creatures in Lud. Their weakness is here." Again he tapped his chest. "The undead don't breathe, but there's a kind of gill above their hearts. If they armor it over, they die. That's where we'll strike them."
A low, considering hum of conversation greeted this. And then Gran-pere's voice, shrill and excited: " Tis ever' word true, for dinna Molly Doolin strike one there hersel' wi' the dish, an' not even dead-on, neither, and yet the creetur' dropped down!"
Susannah's hand tightened on Eddie's arm enough for him to feel her short nails, but when he looked at her, she was grinning in spite of herself. He saw a similar expression on Jake's face. Trig enough when the chips were down, old man , Eddie thought. Sorry I ever doubted you. Let Andy and Slightman go back across the river and report that happy horseshit ! He'd asked Roland if they (the faceless they represented by someone who called himself Finli o' Tego) would believe such tripe. They've raided this side of the Why'e for over a hundred years and lost but a single fighter , Roland had replied. I think they'd believe anything. At this point their really vulnerable spot is their complacence .
"Bring your twins here by seven o' the clock on Wolfs Eve," Roland said. "There'll be ladies - Sisters of Oriza, ye ken -  with lists on slateboards. They'll scratch off each pair as they come in. It's my hope to have a line drawn through every name before nine o' the clock."
"Ye'll not drig no line through the names o' mine!" cried an angry voice from the back of the crowd. The voice's owner pushed several people aside and stepped forward next to Jake. He was a squat man with a smallhold rice-patch far to the south'ards. Roland scratched through the untidy storehouse of his recent memory (untidy, yes, but nothing was ever thrown away) and eventually came up with the name: Neil Faraday. One of the few who hadn't been home when Roland and his ka-tet had come calling... or not home to them, at least. A hard worker, according to Tian, but an even harder drinker. He certainly looked the part. There were dark circles under his eyes and a complication of burst purplish veins on each cheek. Scruffy, say big-big. Yet Telford and Took threw him a grateful, surprised look. Another sane man in bedlam , it said. Thank the gods .
" 'Ay'll take 'een babbies anyro' and burn 'een squabbot town flat," he said, speaking in an accent that made his words almost incomprehensible. "But 'ay'll have one each o' my see', an' 'at'U stee' lea' me three, and a' best 'ay ain't worth squabbot, but my howgan is!" Faraday looked around at the townsfolk with an expression of sardonic disdain. "Burn'ee flat an' be damned to 'ee," he said. "Numb gits!" And back into the crowd he went, leaving a surprising number of people looking shaken and thoughtful. He had done more to turn the momentum of the crowd with his contemptuous and (to Eddie, at least) incomprehensible tirade than Telford and Took had been able to do together.
He may be shirttail poor, but I doubt if he'll have trouble getting credit from Took for the next year or so , Eddie thought. If the store still stands, that is .
"Sai Faraday's got a right to his opinion, but I hope he'll change it over the next few days," Roland said. "I hope you folks will help him change it. Because if he doesn't, he's apt to be left not with three kiddies but none at all." He raised his voice and shaped it toward the place where Faraday stood, glowering. "Then he can see how he likes working his tillage with no help but two mules and a wife."
Telford stepped forward to the edge of the stage, his face red with fury. "Is there nothing ye won't say to win your argument, you chary man? Is there no lie you won't tell?"
"I don't lie and I don't say for certain," Roland replied. "If I've given anyone the idea that I know all the answers when less than a season ago I didn't even know the Wolves existed, I cry your pardon. But let me tell you a story before I bid you goodnight. When I was a boy in Gilead, before the coming of the Good Man and the great burning that followed, there was a tree farm out to the east o' barony."
"Whoever heard of farming trees ?" someone called derisively.
Roland smiled and nodded. "Perhaps not ordinary trees, or even ironwoods, but these were blossies, a wonderful light wood, yet strong. The best wood for boats that ever was. A piece cut thin nearly floats in the air. They grew over a thousand acres of land, tens of thousands of blosswood trees in neat rows, all overseen by the barony forester. And the rule, never even bent, let alone broken, was this: take two, plant three."
"Aye," Eisenhart said. " 'Tis much the same with stock, and with threaded stock the advice is to keep four for every one ye sell or kill. Not that many could afford to do so."
Roland's eyes roamed the crowd. "During the summer season I turned ten, a plague fell on the blosswood forest. Spiders spun white webs over the upper branches of some, and those trees died from their tops down, rotting as they went, falling of their own weight long before the plague could get to the roots. The forester saw what was happening, and ordered all the good trees cut down at once. To save the wood while it was still worth saving, do you see? There was no more take two and plant three, because the rule no longer made any sense. The following summer, the blossy woods east of Gilead was gone."
Utter silence from the folken . The day had drained down to a premature dusk. The torches hissed. Not an eye stirred from the gunslinger's face.
"Here in the Calla, the Wolves harvest babies. And needn't even go to the work of planting em, because - hear me - that's the way it is with men and women. Even the children know. 'Daddy's no fool, when he plants the rice commala, Mommy knows just what to do.' "
A murmur from the folken .
"The Wolves take, then wait. Take... and wait. It's worked fine for them, because men and women always plant new babies, no matter what else befalls. But now comes a new thing. Now comes plague."
Took began, "Aye, say true, ye're a plague all r - " Then someone knocked the hat off his head. Eben Took whirled, looked for the culprit, and saw fifty unfriendly faces. He snatched up his hat, held it to his breast, and said no more.
"If they see the baby-farming is over for them here," Roland said, "this last time they won't just take twins; this time they'll take every child they can get their hands on while the taking's good. So bring your little ones at seven o' the clock. That's my best advice to you."
"What choice have you left em?" Telford asked. He was white with fear and fury.
Roland had had enough of him. His voice rose to a shout, and Telford fell back from the force of his suddenly blazing blue eyes. "None that you have to worry about, sai, for your children are grown, as everyone in town knows. You've had your say. Now why don't you shut up?"
A thunder of applause and boot-stomping greeted this. Telford took the bellowing and jeering for as long as he could, his head lowered between his hunched shoulders like a bull about to charge. Then he turned and began shoving his way through the crowd. Took followed. A few moments later, they were gone. Not long after that, the meeting ended. There was no vote. Roland had given them nothing to vote on.
No, Eddie thought again as he pushed Susannah's chair toward the refreshments, cozy really wasn't in it at all.
Not long after, Roland accosted Ben Slightman. The foreman was standing beneath one of the torch-poles, balancing a cup of coffee and a plate with a piece of cake on it. Roland also had cake and coffee. Across the greensward, the children's tent had for the nonce become the refreshment tent. A long line of waiting people snaked out of it. There was low talk but little laughter. Closer by, Benny and Jake were tossing a springball back and forth, every now and then letting Oy have a turn. The bumbler was barking happily, but the boys seemed as subdued as the people waiting in line.
"Ye spoke well tonight," Slightman said, and clicked his coffee cup against Roland's.
"Do you say so?"
"Aye. Of course they were ready, as I think ye knew, but Faraday must have been a surprise to ye, and ye handled him well."
"I only told the truth," Roland said. "If the Wolves lose enough of their troop, they'll take what they can and cut their losses. Legends grow beards, and twenty-three years is plenty of time to grow a long one. Calla-folken , assume there are thousands of Wolves over there in Thunderclap, maybe millions of em, but I don't think that's true."
Slightman was looking at him with frank fascination. "Why not?"
"Because things are running down," Roland said simply, and then: "I need you to promise me something."
Slightman looked at him warily. The lenses of his spectacles twinkled in the torchlight. "If I can, Roland, I will."
"Make sure your boy's here four nights from now. His sister's dead, but I doubt if that untwins him to the Wolves. He's still very likely got what it is they come for."
Slightman made no effort to disguise his relief. "Aye, he'll be here. I never considered otten else."
"Good. And I have a job for you, if you'll do it."
The wary look returned. "What job would it be?"
"I started off thinking that six would be enough to mind the children while we dealt with the Wolves, and then Rosalita asked me what I'd do if they got frightened and panicked."
"Ah, but you'll have em in a cave, won't you?" Slightman asked, lowering his voice. "Kiddies can't run far in a cave, even if they do take fright."
"Far enough to run into a wall and brain themselves or fall down a hole in the dark. If one were to start a stampede on account of the yelling and the smoke and the fire, they might all fall down a hole in the dark. I've decided I'd like to have an even ten watching the kiddos. I'd like you to be one of em."
"Roland, I'm flattered."
"Is that a yes?"
Slightman nodded.
Roland eyed him. "You know that if we lose, the ones minding the children are apt to die?"
"If I thought you were going to lose, I'd never agree to go out there with the kids." He paused. "Or send my own."
"Thank you, Ben. Thee's a good man."
Slightman lowered his voice even further. "Which of the mines is it going to be? The Gloria or the Redbird?" And when Roland didn't answer immediately: "Of course I understand if ye'd rather not tell - "
"It's not that," Roland said. "It's that we haven't decided."
"But it'll be one or the other."
"Oh, aye, where else?" Roland said absently, and began to roll a smoke.
"And ye'll try to get above them?"
"Wouldn't work," Roland said. "Angle's wrong." He patted his chest above his heart. "Have to hit em here, remember. Other places... no good. Even a bullet that goes through armor wouldn't do much damage to a zombi ."
"It's a problem, isn't it?"
"It's an opportunity ," Roland corrected. "You know the scree that spreads out below the adits of those old garnet mines? Looks like a baby's bib?"
"We'll hide ourselves in there. Under there . And when they ride toward us, we'll rise up and..." Roland cocked a thumb and forefinger at Slightman and made a trigger-pulling gesture.
A smile spread over the foreman's face. "Roland, that's brilliant!"
"No," Roland contradicted. "Only simple. But simple's usually best. I think we'll surprise them. Hem them in and pick them off. It's worked for me before. No reason it shouldn't work again."
"No. I suppose not."
Roland looked around. "Best we not talk about such things here, Ben. I know you're safe, but - "
Ben nodded rapidly. "Say n'more, Roland, I understand."
The springball rolled to Slightman's feet. His son held up his hands for it, smiling. "Pa! Throw it!"
Ben did, and hard. The ball sailed, just as Molly's plate had in Gran-pere's story. Benny leaped, caught it one-handed, and laughed. His father grinned at him fondly, then glanced at Roland. "They's a pair, ain't they? Yours and mine?"
"Aye," Roland said, almost smiling. "Almost like brothers, sure enough."
The ka-tet ambled back toward the rectory, riding four abreast, feeling every town eye that watched them go: death on horseback.
"You happy with how it went, sugar?" Susannah asked Roland.
"It'll do," he allowed, and began to roll a smoke.
"I'd like to try one of those," Jake said suddenly.
Susannah gave him a look both shocked and amused. "Bite your tongue, sugar - you haven't seen thirteen yet."
"My Dad started when he was ten."
"And'll be dead by fifty, like as not," Susannah said sternly.
"No great loss," Jake muttered, but he let the subject drop.
"What about Mia?" Roland asked, popping a match with his thumbnail. "Is she quiet?"
"If it wasn't for you boys, I'm not sure I'd believe there even was such a jane."
"And your belly's quiet, too?"
"Yes." Susannah guessed everyone had rules about lying; hers was that if you were going to tell one, you did best to keep it short. If she had a chap in her belly - some sort of monster - she'd let them help her worry about it a week from tonight. If they were still able to worry about anything, that was. For the time being they didn't need to know about the few little cramps she'd been having.
"Then all's well," the gunslinger said. They rode in silence for awhile, and then he said: "I hope you two boys can dig. There'll be some digging to do."
"Graves?" Eddie asked, not sure if he was joking or not.
"Graves come later." Roland looked up at the sky, but the clouds had advanced out of the west and stolen the stars. "Just remember, it's the winners who dig them."