Once upon a time, a ka-tet of readers found themselves at tor.com on a long quest to reach Stephen King’s Dark Tower. During the journey, the author (or perhaps it was simply ka) tried to throw our hardy band of pilgrims into confusion by telling a new story. Undeterred, their path followed the Beam until the end, and only now, when we know what is at the clearing at the end of the path, do we return to Mid-World once again, to join our old friends for The Wind Through the Keyhole (Dark Tower 4.5, if it do ya). Welcome. There be spoilers ahead.
When we last left our again-whole ka-tet, they were holed up to wait out the starkblast, and Roland had begun telling them a story about an early adventure to Debaria with Jamie DeCurry, trying to solve the case of a serial murderer believed to be a skin-man, or shapeshifter. They’d just made contact with Sheriff Hugh Peavy.
The Wind Through the Keyhole: The Skin-Man (Part 1), Section 9
Roland asks Sheriff Peavy if there’s a local boardinghouse, but there isn’t, so Roland and Jamie bunk in the drunk-and-disorderly cell at the jail. The wind is picking up, reminding Roland of the story of Tim Stoutheart that his mother used to tell him when he was little. Jamie hates the sound of the wailing, moaning wind, but Roland loves it.
They talk about how they might find the skin-man, figuring their only option is to start questioning the salt-miners.
What Constant Reader Learns: I wonder how sai King comes up with his character names. “Stringy Bodean,” a former judge in Debaria, who deemed the murderous Widow Brailley insane, is a great one.
The Wind Through the Keyhole: The Skin-Man (Part 1), Section 10
Roland wakes to the sound of the jing-jang ringing and since the sheriff’s office is empty, he answers it. There’s a screaming voice on the other end of the line, a man who identifies himself as Canfield of the Jefferson Ranch. Everyone’s dead, he says. Fifteen or twenty people, all in pieces.
What Constant Reader Learns: Why, I believe we have us a good old-fashioned mystery thriller here. Well, okay, except for the dogs lapping up the blood and eating the brainnnnnzzzz of their dead masters.
The Wind Through the Keyhole: The Skin-Man (Part 1), Section 11
Roland and Jamie join the sheriff, the train engineer, the better of Peavy’s two deputies, Frye, and Frye’s son. It was daylight by the time they reach the Jefferson ranch, and Canfield, a cowboy, and two of his mates are waiting. They were out all night rounding strays, until they heard the screaming and gunshots. They also heard something roaring and snarling.
What Constant Reader Learns: There’s a pecking order among the cowpokes—the pokies. Canfield had recently become a proddie instead of a pokie, which meant he rode a ranch horse while his two pokie companions had to make do with mules.
The Wind Through the Keyhole: The Skin-Man (Part 1), Section 12
Canfield tells his story. By the time he and the pokies reached the ranch, the screaming had stopped. They found bodies, lots of blood, and big bear tracks.
What Constant Reader Learns: Not much, other than the murders were bloody and brutal. And so far, Sheriff Peavy seems to be pretty sharp.
The Wind Through the Keyhole: The Skin-Man (Part 1), Section 13
They go into the house and there are indeed ginormous bear tracks. They determine that the creature went first to the bunkhouse and then to the house. They can reconstruct the scene pretty well—the farmer runs for the bunkhouse and gets nailed. The mother tells the daughters to run and tries to stop the thing, which doesn’t work. The creatures catches the daughters outside.
What Constant Reader Learns: Even after the things he saw at Mejis, Roland says he’d never seen as bloody a sight as what they found in the house. Jamie turns pale, and Roland fears he’ll shame his father by fainting. I haven’t gotten a good read on Jamie yet. He seems more….sensitive, maybe? Compassionate, at least in comparison to Roland.
The Wind Through the Keyhole: The Skin-Man (Part 1), Section 14
Next, everyone heads for the bunkhouse. Along the way, they find a shotgun, its barrel bent to one side.
What Constant Reader Learns: Jamie’s better at spotting patterns; he’s able to deduct from the scenes what happened, more so than Roland.
The Wind Through the Keyhole: The Skin-Man (Part 1), Section 15
The bunkhouse is a slaughterhouse, basically, with the bodies of sixteen proddies, the cook, and the rancher himself—his limbs and head ripped off. Roland and Jamie go outside to study the tracks. It weighed upwards of 800 pounds, they figure, and was running upright like a man. A little farther up the hill and the prints change into hooves, like a bull. Farther still, and they become the prints of a very large cat, then a smaller cat. “It fell and then thrashed,” Jamie deduces. “I think it was in pain.” And then the tracks turn into the bare prints of a human.
They hear a noise in the nearest building, and the gunslingers split up. Roland figures the place was a “jackleg veterinary,” but again Jamie can read the signs. By looking at a pile of horse manure, he figures that the monster knows what he is—he came, and went, as a man on horseback. Jamie figures that makes their search easier because there aren’t that many of the salt-miners likely to have horses.
They’re about to leave when they hear moaning, run back in, and emerging from a pile of bridles and tack is a boy. He asks if it’s gone, and then passes out.
What Constant Reader Learns: Jamie’s upset, but Roland remains calm, which makes them a pretty good pair. Once they get outside, Jamie is better at reading the tracks and figuring out the skin-man knows what he is—something they were unsure of before.
The Wind Through the Keyhole: The Skin-Man (Part 1), Section 16
They carry the boy to the water trough and Jamie washes the kid’s face. He finally comes to, and tells them his name is Bill Streeter—Young Bill—and his father is the cook. He begs them to tell him his father isn’t dead, but can tell by their faces that he is.
What Constant Reader Learns: I hope Young Bill fares better with Roland than some other young boys we’ve met along the journey.
The Wind Through the Keyhole: The Skin-Man (Part 1), Section 17
They question the boy, who says his father sent him out to sleep under the stars to get him away from the ranch foreman, who’d been drinking and was abusive to Young Bill when he was drunk. When they ask how he got from the place he’d slept to hiding in the stable, he says he doesn’t remember anything.
What Constant Reader Learns: Roland admits he and Jamie aren’t sure what to do. “Jamie and I wore guns, [but] they weren’t the big guns of our fathers.” He couldn’t bring himself to tell the kid his father was dead, and instead looked to “the grownup,” Sheriff Peavy. When the boy starts crying, Roland gets up and walks away, not out of indifference but discomfort.
The Wind Through the Keyhole: The Skin-Man (Part 1), Section 18
Once the boy cries himself to sleep, Jamie carries him into the house and puts him in one of the beds upstairs, and then they talk to the sheriff. He says the boy can stay with him and his wife for a while. He figures they’ve got a while before the creature needs to go hunting again.
What Constant Reader Learns: Jamie almost tells the sheriff that Roland can hypnotize the boy, but Roland stops him.
The Wind Through the Keyhole: The Skin-Man (Part 1), Section 19
Roland and Jamie leave the sheriff in the house and take a walk around the area. They agree that Young Bill knows more than he thinks he does, but has just blocked out the memories.
Roland is formulating a plan. He wants Jamie to go up to the “salties’” camp near Little Debaria, up in the hills, while Roland takes Young Bill back to town. Jamie can find out how many of the salties own horses or at least who know how to ride a horse. He also wants them to let on that Young Bill has told them something useful, which doesn’t sit well with Jamie, but Roland persists. He promises he’ll be in the cell hiding with the boy and will protect him.
What Constant Reader Learns: Roland waits for Jamie to object to his plan: “It was a thing he’d never have done himself, even if he thought of it. Which was why my father had put me in charge. Not because I’d done well in Mejis…and not because I was his son, either. Although in a way, I suppose that was it. My mind was like his: cold.”
The Wind Through the Keyhole: The Skin-Man (Part 1), Section 20
Peavy likes Roland’s plan, mostly because it’s a plan, which is more than they had before. As soon as the others are on their way, Roland wakes up Young Bill and tells him they’re going to Debaria. The boy is disoriented and doesn’t ask many questions except whether or not Roland is sure that his father is dead.
What Constant Reader Learns: Nice language here. Roland notes that Young Bill is already almost too tall to ride the mule Millie. “In another year he’d be too big for her, but of course in another year, he’d probably be far from Debaria, just another wanderer on the face of a fading world.” And won’t we all?
The Wind Through the Keyhole: The Skin-Man (Part 1), Section 21
Roland and the boy stop at a “shepherder’s lean-to” along the way and stop for lunch. The wind has been steadily increasing, and Bill says there will be a “full-going simoom” by the time it gets dark. Roland tells him the wind reminds him of a story his mother told him when he was young, called “The Wind Through the Keyhole.”
Bill hasn’t heard of the story, but he does show an interest in Roland’s gun, so Roland decides to try his bullet trick. Although the kid resists at first, eventually he falls into hypnosis and responds to Roland’s questions. He says the sound of screams woke him up, and fighting, and something roaring. He goes down and looks in the window of the bunkhouse, and sees a bear so tall its head reaches the ceiling. He sees it tearing the men apart.
The boy turned to run to the big house but he runs into a freaked-out sai Jefferson, who in his panic shoots at Young Bill. So he runs to the corral instead, and hides in the stable. He hears the thing coming, and along the way it becomes a snarling cat, then into a human screaming. Finally, a man staggers inside like he’s hurt. He doesn’t see anything of the man except his feet—and there was a ring around one of his ankles. After some questioning, Roland determines it’s a tattoo. Roland thinks, “We have you. You don’t know it yet, sai skin-man, but we have you.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Roland knows sai Jefferson inadvertently saved Young Bill’s life by shooting at him and causing him to hide in the stable.
Before Bill comes out of his trance, he mentions the white mark, but Roland figures the kid has had enough and doesn’t push him to remember more. That will probably cost somebody a life or two, that forgotten white mark.
The Wind Through the Keyhole: The Skin-Man (Part 1), Section 22
The two useless deputies are in the sheriff’s office when Roland arrives. They get a bit snarky with Roland when he orders them to give him the key to the cells. He puts some mattresses down for the boy and locks him in, promising he’ll be back soon.
What Constant Reader Learns: Roland also promises the boy vengeance of a sort. “I won’t kill [the skin-man], but you shall be there when he swings, and with my own hand I’ll give you the bread to scatter beneath his dead feet.”
The Wind Through the Keyhole: The Skin-Man (Part 1), Section 23
Roland rides into Debaria against the wind, visits a blacksmith shop and pays him to make special shells to fit his gun; the smithie is amazed at the size of the bullets that fit in the big revolver. At first he tells Roland he can’t have them done until the next day, after the wind dies down, but Roland flashes enough gold at him that he changes his tune pretty quickly. Then Roland goes to get some food.
What Constant Reader Learns: Well, since Roland’s first query was about a jeweler, then a blacksmith, my guess is he needs some nice silver bullets for killing a shapeshifter. But we shall see.
The Wind Through the Keyhole: The Skin-Man (Part 1), Section 24
Roland thinks the stew from Racey’s Café tastes like it was seasoned with alkali grit instead of salt, but the kid eats it, and they have their meal in the jail cell. The boy is excited that Roland thought to bring him candy.
Roland asks some questions about the simoom, and Bill says it will blow during the night but will be gone by noon the next day. He also asks the boy if he thinks Jamie and his companions can ride up to where the salties live and get back by nightfall, and is surprised when the boy thinks they can since they’ll be coming downhill.
Roland leaves him again, but again promises to return.
What Constant Reader Learns: Young Bill wants to know what will become of him, and instead of the sheriff, Roland thinks about Everlynne at the priory and figures he wouldn’t be the first stray she’d taken in.
The Wind Through the Keyhole: The Skin-Man (Part 1), Section 25
On his way out, Roland asks the not-so-good deputies about ankle tattoos, and learns that it’s a mark of someone who’s been a prisoner in Beelie Stockade, a former militia outpost where circuit judges would send thieves and murderers and witches and warlocks. And, one time, a cannibal. They figure four out of every ten of the salt-miners was a former prisoner.
What Constant Reader Learns: Roland admits that, at that point, he hadn’t yet learned to hide his feelings and the not-very-good deputies can tell he’s horrified that so many of the salties could have the same tattoo. “Who did’ee think would take a job digging salt blocks out of a miserable hole in the ground for penny wages?” one of them asks him. “Model citizens?” Good point.
The Wind Through the Keyhole: The Skin-Man (Part 1), Section 26
When Roland returns to the jail, he finds Young Bill crying. He tries to comfort him and distract him by offering to play cards, but the boy isn’t much interested. Instead, he wants to hear a story—doesn’t matter which one. “Stories take a person away, if they’re good ones.”
So Roland prepares to tell him that favorite story from his own youth, “The Wind Through the Keyhole.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Roland does try to comfort the boy even though it doesn’t come naturally to him: “I know what comfort and sympathy are, but I’ve never been much good at giving such,” he notes.
That’s it for this week. Stay tuned for next week, when we’ll begin reading “The Wind Through the Keyhole.”