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 story, Tim had restored his mother’s sight with Maerlyn’s magic elixir, and Nell had killed Big Kells in order to save her son.
The Skin-Man (Part 2), Section 1
With the near-conclusion of the story of “The Wind Through the Keyhole,” we’re back with the young Roland, sitting in the Debaria jail cell with Young Bill Streeter, waiting for Jamie and the others to return with the miners who are suspects as the Skin-Man. (Of course we’re really hearing the much older Roland telling the ka-tet this story within a story.)
Roland tells the boy that Tim carried the Widow Smack’s four-barreled gun for the next ten years, after which he carried six-shooters. And thus the story ends. Young Bill still has a few questions, though—he wants to know if Tim ever became a real gunslinger. He rode with them, Roland tells him, and was known for drawing his gun left-handed. “There came a day when he became ka-tet, one of the very, very few gunslingers not from the proven line of Eld,” Roland said. “Although who knows? Don’t they say that Arthur had many sons from three wives, and moity-more born on the dark side of the blanket.” Then Young Bill wants to know how long Maerlyn was a Tyger, and what he ate, and if Tim ever reached the Tower.
Roland is rescued from having to answer by the arrival of Jamie and the others.
What Constant Reader Learns: I wonder if Roland’s answers were other tales of Tim that he heard as a child. Probably. Since Roland is not the most imaginative gunslinger in the corral, I imagine he’s not winging it.
The Skin-Man (Part 2), Section 2
Roland steps outside, leaving Young Bill in the cell. The wind has picked up, and sand stings his cheek. The sheriff and a couple of his posse ride up with Jamie and twenty-one men from the salt mine who could ride a horse.
When Roland greets them, their response is less than cordial, but he only asks how many would like a drink. “Climb down and line up,” he shouts over the wind. He orders one of the cowboy posse members to buy them two short shots apiece, then stations the others around to see who makes a run for it.
Roland also makes sure that the rumor was spread around camp that Young Bill saw the killer in his human shape.
What Constant Reader Learns: Ah, I shouldn’t have accused Roland of being unimaginative. He knows exactly how to handle the miners—offer them alcohol.
Great observation from Roland as he watches the sad miners filing in for drinks two by two, just as they’d been ordered. “I guessed that their lives as miners were little more than slavery, and I was thankful ka had pointed me along a different path,” he says. “Although, when I look back on it, I wonder how much difference there might be between the slavery of the mine and the slavery of the gun.”
The Skin-Man (Part 2), Section 3
Roland pulls Jamie and the sheriff and the constable aside and admits he’s concerned that the real Skin-Man is not among their suspects—why, if he feared being caught, would he admit to knowing how to ride.
Jamie has thought about this, however, and the constable answers that there’s a rich guy in the mining town that owns the company store. The guy holds competitions every year, including horse-races. So the constable, who bets on these races, know exactly who can ride and who can’t.
What Constant Reader Learns: I wish we learned more about Jamie. He’s quiet and deep, that one. When the constable thinks one of Roland’s questions is a joke, he says, “Cuthbert could have told him I don’t joke, but of course Cuthbert wasn’t there. And Jamie rarely says anything, if he doesn’t have to.”
The Skin-Man (Part 2), Section 4
Roland tells them what he wants, and he and the sheriff go into the bar, where the sheriff orders all the men to sit on the bar and take off their boots. They grumble, but the sheriff finally appeals to their better natures, reminding them of what this killer has already done. An older guy goes first, and the others follow him. Roland pulls out ten who have blue rings around their ankles, including the “Graybeard.” He promises the ten that nine of them will get “long shots,” while the other gets a noose.
What Constant Reader Learns: The miners are very sad cases. Several point out that all Roland has to do is ask if he wants to know who’s spent time in the stockade. One went there for stealing food for his family. Another points out that it wouldn’t be that bad if the gunslingers would shoot them; then they wouldn’t have to go back in the mine anymore.
Apparently, the miners’ bare feet smelled none too good. The whores left, the bartender left the bar, and nobody ordered dinner in Racey’s Café at suppertime.
The Skin-Man (Part 2), Section 5
Roland and Jamie walk across the street as the ten tattooed prisoners line up for the jail visit. Jamie points out that the guilty one is probably going to call their bluff, figuring Young Bill only saw his feet.
What Constant Reader Learns: Roland’s clearly the leader of this operation, but Jamie’s a deeper thinker. When Roland says they’ll lock up all the prisoners if Young Bill can’t I.D. one, and wait until the skin-man changes form, it’s Jamie who wonders what they’ll do if the shape-shifting is something the skin-man can control, in which case he won’t change. Roland has no answer to this. But ka will be as Gan wills it, yes?
The Skin-Man (Part 2), Section 6
Roland orders Wegg, the constable, to go with the prisoners to the jail. He also pulls the “graybeard” aside; Roland’s pretty sure he’s not the skin-man, but he asks if he knows who it is. If so, he tells the man named Steg Luka, they could save putting Young Bill through even more pain.
Luka says he doesn’t know because “we’ve all been down there, deep in the new plug, and we all saw it.” “It” being something with a green light pulsing like a heartbeat that speaks to them somehow. “It’s of the Old People,” Luka says. And even though the foreman ordered the crack in the rocks to be covered up, “someone went in there, and whatever’s on the other side…it changed him.”
Roland looks over the prisoners, and doesn’t think any of them have a particularly guilty look on their face. He has them line up by age—which causes some confusion as some don’t know their own age, much less anyone else’s—but he’s only doing it to kill some time.
What Constant Reader Learns: Ah, poor old sai Luka. We don’t yet know what’s going to happen to him, but we’re told his drinking days are over.
The Skin-Man (Part 2), Section 7
Roland goes to talk to Billy, who’s understandably frightened. “Tim Stoutheart was afraid too,” he tells the boy. “But he went on. I expect you to do the same.” He promises that both he and Jamie will be nearby. And Roland has his order from the blacksmith—a single bullet of pure silver, the only way to kill a skin-man.
What Constant Reader Learns: Roland pulls out all the guilt trips on Billy. Not only tells him to live up to Tim Stoutheart’s example, but that his father is watching him from the clearing.
The Skin-Man (Part 2), Section 8
The men walk past, one by one, walking slowly. Roland is losing hope as the boy fails to recognize any of them. As the last one passes, Billy calls out to Roland—he wants them to walk past again. He’s remembered that the rings on their ankles aren’t the same. So even though the men want the drink they were promised, they all pull up their pants legs and walk past again.
There’s a long pause after Billy whispers the man’s name to Roland, and then everything goes to hell and back. In hindsight, Roland says he didn’t have a clue how fast the skin-man could change. He orders Wegg to bring the man Ollie Ang to him. Ollie starts squawking, and Jamie pulls out his gun, flips it in the air, catches it by the barrel, and whacks Ollie on the head with the butt.
Before anyone can react, Steg Luka rushes up and attacks Ollie, and Ollie’s head begins to change. It twists backwards, and then his whole body changes to those of a big pooky, a man-high snake, which proceeds to eat the graybeard. He also manages to bite Wegg, who begins a quick, painful death himself.
Roland pulls his gun, and shoots true. “I never doubted I could make the shot,” he says. “It’s what such as I was made for.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Roland chastises himself for missing the clue. When he’d first questioned him, Billy had recalled a “white mark.” Roland realizes it meant a broken ring tattoo. “I thought of all the times Cort had called me a slowkins from the eyebrows up.” But it also is probably what makes him the best gunslinger.
The Skin-Man (Part 2), Section 9
Jamie and Roland stay in the cell with Billy the rest of the night. Except for one task. Once the boy is asleep, the gunslingers join Sheriff Peavy and burn the body of Ollie Ang.
What Constant Reader Learns: There’s a wristwatch that Ollie Ang took from the creature in the mine, and they consider taking it. In the end, no one wants it, “for it might be haunted.” I’m thinking it should show up in another story, if it hasn’t already.
The Skin-Man (Part 2), Section 10
The next morning, Jamie and Roland round up a crew and go to the rail line to get the train Sma’ Toot back on the tracks. There will be a celebration that night, in the gunslingers’ honor, and Roland also needs to visit Everlynne at Serenity to see if they’ll take in Young Bill and also to get whatever thing she has for him.
What Constant Reader Learns: Hm. Wonder what she has? It’s from Roland’s mother, so I’m sure it will do a number on his head since he has such mommy issues already.
The Skin-Man (Part 2), Section 11
Everlynne greets them warmly and manages to humiliate Jamie with some bawdy references. Roland is embarrassed too, but it’s because Fortuna, the survivor of the skin-man’s attack, falls on her knees to thank them.
Everlynne says they will be happy to take Young Bill in, at least until he gets old enough to be “troubled” by women.
What Constant Reader Learns: We want more Jamie!
The Skin-Man (Part 2), Section 12
After a fine dinner, Everlynne takes Roland to her private quarters. Few men have visited there, she tells Roland, but one he might know. “He had a white face and black clothes. Do you know the man of whom I speak?” Roland knows Marten Broadcloak all too well.
He managed to speak to Gabrielle Deschain while there, and a short time later, Roland’s mother returned home. But she told Everlynne that her son would come here—“because ka is a wheel and it always turns.” So she left a letter for Roland. Everlynne leaves him alone to read it.
What Constant Reader Learns: Everlynne says that since Marten cursed Serenity, she had wondered if the skin-man was “his work.” Roland doesn’t think so, but they agree that they can never be entirely sure. Who knows? Maybe the Red King locked our black-clad friend underground for a bit to punish him for his funny business with Maerlyn, and the miners managed to set him free.
The Skin-Man (Part 2), Section 13
Roland sits and looks at the envelope containing the letter for a long time, “my heart full of hate and love and regret.” He considers not opening it but, in the end, he has to. The writing is uneven, and Roland thinks they were written by a woman trying to “hold onto a few last shreds of sanity.”
Steven, she said, had told her to go to Serenity and stay until she died, but she’d heard things that might help Gilead survive a few years longer. Marten had told her that if she returned she’d “die at your brat’s hand and see every goodness, every kindness, every loving thought poured out of him like water from a dipper.” But her return was what ka demands, she said. She wrote more, but Roland does not tell what it was.
After a while, Roland and Jamie return to town, where there’s drink and dancing and women. Jamie has his first woman.
What Constant Reader Learns: Interesting that Gabrielle refers to Steven as never really caring for her. I don’t think gunslingers were big on relationships, by nature.
Roland admits he kept the letter for a long time, until the paper fell apart. “I let the wind take it—the wind that blows through time’s keyhole, ye ken. In the end, the wind takes everything doesn’t it? If the sweetness of our lives did not depart, there would be no sweetness at all.” Wise words, those.
Storm’s Over, Section 1
And so we shift back to the outer shell of our story in a story in a story—Roland telling the tales to his Dark Tower ka-tet. They’ve all been listening attentively except for Oy, who’s sacked out by the fireplace on his back.
The next morning, Roland says, he and Jamie boarded the train back to Gilead, and that’s the end of his story.
Outside, the starkblast is winding down. They’ll build up the fire, and then sleep until the storm plays itself out. And then it’ll be time to get back on the road.
What Constant Reader Learns: I love that Jake goes to sleep with the image in his mind of billy-bumblers dancing in the moon light.
Storm’s Over, Section 2
Roland wakes in the early afternoon to find Susannah already up. The storm is over, and she has already unboarded one of the windows. Outside, the whole village of Gook has been destroyed, the building they’re in the only one left standing.
Susannah asks what else was in Gabrielle’s letter, and Roland pauses but finally tells her. “I forgive you everything,” she wrote to the son she knew would kill her. “Can you forgive me?”
Roland looks out the window and smiles.
What Constant Reader Learns: Nice bit of closure for Roland, although I’m not sure it really was closure given the remainder of the books. Mayhap.
Storm’s Over, Section 3
The ka-tet spends one more night in the meeting hall, and then gather their gunna and continue along the Path of the Beam toward Calla Bryn Sturgis.
What Constant Reader Learns: And so we finish our little sidetrack back into the world of the Dark Tower. I don’t think it added a lot to the saga as a whole, other than a bit of maybe how Roland began coming to terms with his mother’s death. It was fun to revisit Mid-World, though, and to travel along a different Path of the Beam with Tim Stoutheart, and to catch up to another episode in the life of our favorite Man in Black.
And so we come to our own clearing at the end of the path. May we again be well met if Tor, I mean ka, wills it.