The road cut the desert in half. The desert hardly noticed the cut, split, cracked, and calloused as its skin was by long ages of unrepentant sun and wind. The road, for its part, cut straight and narrow through the desert’s rocky red flesh, making a scar of soft white sand.
A man on horseback rode alone on the straight and narrow road. Now, there was nothing about the man’s appearance, other than his red skin, and his black hair, and his name if you had happened to know it, to betray his nature as an Indian. He dressed like a white man, and he did so without the gaudy embellishments which so often accompany aboriginal attempts at camouflage – feathers in caps, colored stockings, and anachronisms of that kind. No, the Indian looked, from a distance, like any drab ordinary man going from one place to another.
A handful of buzzards rose into the air from a depression in the desert’s skin. “Where the corpse is, the vultures gather,” the Indian said to himself. The buzzards wheeled over the depression, little black points of night in the bright blue sky. The Indian pulled his horse to a stop and watched them.
“If it is dead, why fly from it?” he wondered aloud. He turned from the wheeling buzzards and looked to his right, as if consulting with a companion, but there was no one there. He was alone. “If it is eaten, why not leave?” he asked the empty air. Then, for a long time, he stared at the place. He looked intently, like a soldier being given commands, listening to every word because his life depended on his ability to execute his orders. Finally, the commands received, he nodded and guided his horse off the straight and narrow road, and toward the buzzards.
He stopped his horse at the edge of the depression and looked down into it. A donkey stood at the bottom, mightily burdened by gear – a huge chest on one side and a spiky bundle of axes, shovels, and picks on the other. On the ground beside the donkey lay a man. The Indian did not see the man at first because he was lying in the darkness of the donkey’s shadow. A rope connected the beast of burden to his collapsed master. The shadows of the buzzards rippled over them.
The man had once been fat, but the desert and hardship had drained him, leaving his small skeleton to drown in an ocean of flesh. He looked like a wrung out waterskin, one that had been pecked at by buzzards.
The Indian crouched beside the man. He was filthy. Streaks of dry red desert dirt crisscrossed his white shirt. He looked like he’d been wrestling someone with bloody hands. And he stank.
The Indian put his hand on the man’s chest and felt the life still pounding in him. He went to his horse and returned with a canteen. He wetted his fingers and sprinkled the water on the man’s forehead. The man turned away. The Indian gently returned the man’s head and put his canteen to the cracked lips.
The water hit the man’s tongue like lightning. He sat bolt upright, piggy eyes flaming, and glared at his hands. The palms and the backs were red from the desert dust. He spat the precious water into them. Then he rubbed them together furiously. “Blood,” he muttered. “Gotta warsh this blood…” He wiped his wet hands on his shirt, laying muddy red streaks over the dry ones. Then he wiped his hands on his pants, buffing them fast and hard on the dusty denim. He forced the cloth of his shirt down between his fingers to dry the secret crevices. Then he inspected his hands, holding them close to his bloodshot eyes and turning them so he could see both the palms and the backs. They were clean now. Very clean.
Then the man sensed that he was not alone. He turned slowly and saw the Indian. They looked at one another for a few heartbeats. Then the man’s eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed, face first, into the ground and lay there, unmoving.
The man’s collapse revealed a wound, red and crusty and high up, on his shoulder. He’d been shot in the back and some time ago by the look of it.
The Indian lifted the unconscious man onto his horse, mounted behind him, and rode out of the depression, leading the burdened donkey along behind. Soon they were on the straight and narrow road, and the buzzards departed.
Snarf’s parents died before they had a chance to leave any impression on his memory. So Snarf’s uncle took him in. Snarf called him Unk. Unk was a short, wiry fellow whose gambling habit caused him to miss his calling as a horse jockey, the profession for which God had designed his rail-like body. Unk never married, again because of his gambling, and treated Snarf rather less well than Snarf would have preferred to be treated, again, because of his gambling.
It was Unk who gave Snarf his name, perhaps as retribution for being called Unk, perhaps because, when his orphaned nephew arrived on his doorstep some 12 years ago, no Christian name was included. No matter. Snarf’s name fit him well because Snarf snarfed; he’d pull air in through his nose and thrust his forearm across his nostrils at the same time. These combined actions made a snarfing sound. It was a sort of nervous tick he had. Remember, he was an orphan. And he was a boy, and all boys are a little bit icky, so we must not judge him too harshly.
Unk and Snarf owned and operated The Six-Gun Saloon. It was the only saloon in Amity, and they gloried in their monopoly. The Six, as Unk and Snarf affectionately called her, got her name from an ancient Allen revolver mounted behind the bar. The revolver had belonged to Unk’s father and Snarf’s grandfather, who, come to think of it, was the same person. Unk had called him Pap, and so the pistol was called Pap’s Pistol.
Pap’s Pistol had three defining characteristics. First, it was massive. It was massive because it was old. The Egyptians don’t make pyramids like they used to, the Romans don’t make empires like they used to, and so the Americans don’t make guns like they used to. It is a fact of nature that things, even people, shrink as they age. Second, Pap’s Pistol was mysteriously black, black like the hulls of the beetles that hide under tombstones on moonless nights. And third, it was loaded. Snarf spent many an afternoon watching the lead-gray slugs pupating in the big round barrels and wondering what the gun would feel like as it bucked in his hand and sent one of those burning slugs into the heart of some notorious outlaw. He often wondered how he’d spend the reward. Sometimes he wondered what it would be like to be kissed by the lady he’d rescued.
If Snarf’s daydreams sound unrealistic or even violent to your ears, that is because you do not live in an age of fire like he did. You are, probably, a product of Modernity – a wretched, cold, antiseptic thing obsessed with the baleful lights produced by electrified silicon. Snarf, you must understand, lived in an age of fire: when a boy could go outside, put his back to his family’s cabin – a cabin he’d help make – and see an alien world. Wolves howled at night. Indians hunted scalps with tomahawks. Outlaws marauded. Every waking moment you tingled with the knowledge that you were living in the valley of the shadow of death. There were no seatbelts. It was exciting. It was exciting because you knew you were alive.
Snarf emerged from his dark bedroom into the weird world of the pitch-dark saloon. The candle he carried made him look like one of those deep sea fishes with the light dangling from its forehead. The chairs, turned upside down on the tables because Unk had made him mop before going to bed, cast their pointy shadows on the sparkling floor. He went up the stairs. At the top of the stairs, there was a balcony that overlooked the saloon. On the balcony, there was a door. Snarf knocked on it.
Someone on the other side grunted.
“General’ll be here soon,” Snarf said.
Snarf went back downstairs and wound his way through the tables toward the saloon doors. His candle glittered in the glass of the lanterns that rested in the center of each table. He stopped. He looked back up at the closed door on the dim balcony above. Unk was probably going to sleep through the shipment; he usually did. Snarf snarfed. Then he put his candle on a table and carefully, oh so carefully, lifted one of the overturned chairs and set it upright on the floor. Now he could get at the lantern. Unk didn’t let him use the lanterns because they were for the customers, but Unk was asleep.
Snarf carried his shining lantern through The Six and went out the batwing doors onto the porch. Sure enough, there was General’s cart lumbering down the street toward him. General looked a bit like a decrepit Santa Claus. This early in the morning, his white beard was mussed and his eyes were gooey with sleep. He wore a suit of yellowed long underwear, desperately in need of darning, and a filthy night cap a yard long with a little ball at the end that once had been white and puffy like a hare’s tail but looked now like the stem of a half-blown dandelion. The massive pile of goods in the back of his cart swayed as he stopped.
“Where’s that crippled turtle you call an uncle?” General asked.
General did not approve of Unk because, when he paid his invoices, he paid them late. Snarf and General carried in the supplies together. It was quite a load: kegs of beer, crates of liquor, barrels of salted pork, a side of smoked beef, and on and on it went, all because today was “FREE” Lunch Day at The Six.
A year ago, Unk had returned from an unsuccessful gambling jag in Ithaca, breathing words of prophecy of the fortune they would make if only they gave out free lunch one day a week. Snarf, who was the cook, was dubious. Unk, ever the gambler, painted “FREE LUNCH” on a shingle and hung it out to dry that very day.
The fiasco began innocently enough. Hungry men popped in wanting to know what the catch was. They squinted when Unk said there wasn’t one. They sat, looking round for the other shoe that they were sure was about to drop. And, my, how they marveled – their expressions gave St. Thomas a run for his money! – when a free lunch, prepared by Snarf himself, was placed before them.
Word spread through Amity in a flash, and the locusts descended. Snarf and Unk ran out of everything inside 15 minutes. But Unk tried again the very next week and this time there was a catch. Unk amended his sign with a parenthetical, which had the added benefit of justifying the previously unnecessary quotation marks around “FREE.” The amended sign read:
(must buy drink)
But this was no catch at all. It was, in fact, just what the hearts of the good men of Amity yearned to do. They took to the catch like fish in water and “FREE” Lunch Day became a weekly institution, far outstripping the Sabbath in popularity and observance and serving as a financial windfall for Snarf and Unk. At least it would have, had it not been for Unk’s gambling habit.
Finally General’s cart was empty, The Six’s larder was full, and the desert sky was white with dawn. General handed Snarf the invoice. Snarf snarfed at the total.
“I thought not,” General said, shaking his head. “You tell Eugene to bring his winnings by later today or there’ll be hell to pay.” Then he climbed into his cart, groaning on account of his age and his gout. He took up the reins but stopped because Snarf was standing by, waiting for something.
“What?” General asked.
Snarf’s eyes flicked to a rolled up paper on the cart’s seat.
“Oh, yeah,” General handed the paper to Snarf. “I don’t know what it is you see in them things.”
“The customers like em.”
General snorted, “Customers got nothin to do with it.”
Before Snarf could protest, General flicked the reins. Once he was gone, Snarf eagerly unrolled the paper. It was a Wanted poster. The man pictured on it was named Flint. Snarf was a little disappointed because the picture was a drawing not a photograph. He preferred the photographs because they were the real live faces of the outlaws. A drawing was just someone’s best guess. But the bandana that covered the outlaw’s face and the nasty scar under his left eye saved this drawing from unexciting ambiguity. The details added an air of menace and mystery to Flint, who was wanted dead or alive for $1,000, for robbery and the murder of an officer of the law.
Typically the backs of bars in Snarf’s era were decorated by bottles of liquor backed by a mirror, to make the collection look more extensive than it really was. The Six had both the liquor and the mirror, in addition to Pap’s Pistol, but The Six’s mirror was entirely obscured by Wanted posters. They covered the mirror like autumn leaves. Some were so ancient that they’d yellowed, and their corners had curled. Others were as fresh and as brown as butcher’s paper. Snarf put a dab of honey from a pot he kept under the bar on the back of Flint’s poster. Honey worked just as well as glue, and it was handier. Then he climbed onto a barstool he’d retrieved and went hunting for a good spot to paste Flint. But there wasn’t an empty space available. He had some posters on the wall of his bedroom, but that space was reserved for the ones he’d heard or suspected had been caught. Flint was too fresh for that, so Snarf did his best: he covered the face of some unreliable looking lady worth only $100 for the crime of “walking the street on the Lord’s Day.” Snarf had no idea what that meant or why it was a crime, so covering her was no great loss.
Snarf inspected his mosaic of villainy. If he caught them all, which is what he wanted to do more than anything in the world, he’d probably be a millionaire. There were murderers and cutthroats and arsonists and larcenists and confidence men and notorious women and gangs and loners and every sort of scum Satan had invented.
The palms of Snarf’s hands began to itch. Pap’s Pistol was within reach. Unk’s door was still closed, and all was quiet. He shouldn’t. He really shouldn’t. He should just climb off the stool. But the lantern’s light caught on the smooth shiny metal inside of the pistol’s ring trigger, making it glitter like a gold wedding band. Snarf reached for it.
“What’re you doin?” Unk asked.
Snarf clambered down, leaving Pap’s Pistol in its place. “I was just- we got a new poster. I was puttin it up.”
“We,” Unk muttered, amused by the harmless lie. Then he glared, “Where’s your candle?”
Snarf quickly relit his candle in the illicit lantern then blew the lantern out.
Unk looked haughtily down at his recalcitrant nephew, hoping to instill a sense in Snarf of the gravity of his crime. That done, he turned to go back to bed.
Feeling suddenly impetuous, Snarf held up the unpaid invoice. “General says you better bring him your winnings.” He regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth.
Unk stiffened. Like all gamblers, he believed himself a winner. Any insinuation to the contrary was an offense not to be brooked. “Mop the floor,” he ordered.
“I mopped it last night.”
“And then you and General made tracks in it with your little dirty feet, so you will mop it again.” Unk slammed his door.
Snarf looked up at Flint’s Wanted poster. Only the outlaw’s eyes were visible in the shadows cast by the dancing candle flame. Snarf made a gun with his fingers and shot Flint dead.
The vast horde of men crammed shoulder to shoulder at the bar, knee to knee around the poker tables, and eye to eye over the billiards expected their food fast and their drinks instantly. Snarf worked like a dervish.
Many of the men declared Snarf made a better steak than their wives. They didn’t tell their wives that, obviously, just each other. And indeed, Snarf did make a great steak, but then he made great everything because he had an uncanny knack for the one vital element in cooking: heat. Mastery of herbs and spices and the balance of fat and acid eluded him, but he had a knack for heat, for fire, in spades, as Unk would say. He knew when his stove was hot enough and when it had gotten too cool, and he knew just how much wood to add to bring it up to where it needed to be. When a steak went on, he started no timer and consulted no clock but flipped it at precisely the right time and took it off at precisely the right time, every time. Snarf might not have known much by today’s standards, but he knew fire, because he was a product of his age.
Each plate got a steak, a scoop of potatoes, a scoop of beans, and a thick slice of cornbread. There was too much salt in the beans and potatoes – that was Unk’s trick, to encourage drinking. Between serving the plates and flipping the steaks, Snarf made the lucrative drinks. Thankfully the simple men ordered simple drinks, but Snarf could make anything. He’d been tending bar since he was six. He’d been delivering drinks since he could walk.
With a tray on his shoulder, he threaded his way through the tables. He peeked at Unk’s cards as he passed: black aces and black eights, the Dead Man’s Hand. Now, despite its name, the Dead Man’s Hand is actually a good hand, and, knowing this, Unk had bet heavily on it. Unfortunately, it was not good enough. Unk slapped his cards down, and another man raked in his chips. Unk was bust. Consequently, so was Snarf.
Snarf handed the plates and drinks to their purchasers. He stuffed the money, which was hardly enough to make a dent in General’s invoice, into his apron. But Unk grabbed his arm as he passed and plunged his hand into the pocketed money.
“At least let me get it to the register,” Snarf protested.
“Gotta strike while the iron’s hot,” Unk said, slapping the money down and reaching for more cards.
Cashless and annoyed, Snarf went back behind the bar and made a single plate, but this one was different: hold the beans and double the cornbread. He grabbed the honeypot from its secret place under the bar and carried the food to a man sitting alone at the far end of the bar where he could look out on the entire saloon. All the man’s outfit, from his hat to his boots, was black, except for the silver on his pistol, spurs, and the badge which stood out on his broad chest like the North Star. His name was DC and he was the sheriff of Amity, and he was Snarf’s hero.
Snarf slammed down his food.
“Hey, easy. I don’t like my potatoes mashed.”
“Someday,” Snarf declared, “one of them outlaws is gonna walk in here.”
“Walk in here? Yeah, and what’ll you do?” DC asked as he poured a copious quantity of honey over his cornbread.
“I’ll yank Pap’s Pistol down and blast him.”
“Blast him? Yer awful young. You think you got the stomach for killin?”
“Sure I do. He’ll be worth ten thousand dollars, at least. I’ll be able to get outta here. Then Unk can make his own free lunch and mop his own floor for all I care.”
“Where you gonna go?”
“I’m gonna go after the rest of em and not quit till I get em all or I’m a millionaire. I’ll be a bounty hunter, like you were. The best ever.”
DC shook his head as he chewed his honeyed cornbread. “You don’t wanna be a bounty hunter.”
“It’s cold at night.”
“I don’t care about that. I’d be tough. ‘He’s one tough barve,’ that’s what they’d say about me.”
“Who’s gonna say that?”
“All of em!” Snarf stabbed his finger at the Wanted posters.
“All of em! I thought you killed em?”
Snarf glared at the sheriff, who cracked a smile, “I’m sorry. I’m bein contrary.”
Snarf snatched the sheriff’s second piece of cornbread – for revenge.
“Tough barve?” DC protested. “Yer a mean barve.”
Snarf took a teasing bite of the cornbread, but the sheriff was no longer amused. His eyes had slid past Snarf. They were on the door. “Don’t look now, deputy, but this might be your chance.”
Purl stood in the doorway of The Six.
Purl was Amity’s Goliath, and he was a purebred Philistine if ever there was one. Legends innumerable of his strength and cruelty blanketed the country. Most notable among them was the tale of the time he’d thumped an elk on the top of its head with his bare fist, on the hard bony place between the antlers, and kilt it dead. Or so the story went. The elk had been within arm’s reach, the story went, because it had sneaked up on him while he was sleeping to investigate his person for eatables. Purl ate the elk itself raw in a single sitting, the story went.
A hush fell over The Six. All eyes were on Purl.
Purl lifted his little round hat – it wasn’t little, really, but they don’t make hats in his size – and mopped his acre of brow. He replaced his hat and made his way toward the bar. Every head swiveled to follow the giant.
Snarf considered leaping up and snatching Pap’s Pistol. It was close enough…
DC, without taking his eyes off Purl, shook his head. His hand had moved stealthily to hover over his pistol. The wooden handle was varnished black. It shone like obsidian and was as cool as the hand hovering over it.
Snarf’s hands were hot and sweaty. He wanted to wipe them on his apron, but he was too scared to move.
Purl towered over Kit, a farmer sitting at the bar, and glared down at him. Kit evacuated his stool – his barstool, you understand. Then Purl put one massive boot on the stool and hoisted himself up. The top of his hat flattened against the ceiling.
More than a few heads turned sideways at the sight of such a big man on such a small stool.
Then Purl began rifling his pockets.
All eyes went to DC. They saw his hand near his gun, and they saw there wasn’t a drop of sweat on him or a bit of tension in his body. He was as loose and as ready as a whip.
Purl produced a piece of paper. It had been folded many times, in a childlike way, to keep its message secret. His big fingers worked the folds apart. He had trouble with the final fold, so he licked his thumb and found the reinforcing moisture helped his cause. Then, to the disbelief of many, and the great enhancement of his legend, Purl began to read.
“I have seen the light,” his voice was as big as he was, though his reading had a hitch in its giddy-up. “Last Sundee, I were born-again. I were warshed by the blood of Jesus Christ. And cleaned of all my sin.” He caught his theological error and corrected it: “Sins.”
A smile played at the corner of DC’s lips. He took his hand off his gun, put his elbow on the bar, and put his cheek on his fist. This was gonna be good.
“Since that time, wicked spirits have not touched my tongue ner I have lain with my woman-”
“She survived the maiden voyage?” one wit whispered to his friend, who coughed into his beer.
Purl went on undeterred, “-with who I-” but he got tangled. He brought the paper right up to his face, almost touching his nose, “with whom I had been living in gray vase” (he meant grievous) “sin. I have re-pen-ted. And so should yew.” Purl cleared his throat and glanced at his pupils who, he was surprised to see, were attending to him studiously. “Yew can repent by voting in support of the National Prohibition Party and it’s candy-date, James-”
The Six erupted. A whole steer’s worth of steak flew at Purl from every direction. Kit avenged and covered himself in everlasting glory by kicking the stool out from under Purl. The giant’s fall smote the floor, rattling the teeth of those nearby, who fell on him with blows.
DC broke through the press, hauled Purl up, and, with assistance from Unk and encouragement from all, threw Purl out.
Purl rolled to a stop at the black-booted feet of the entire Ladies League, a small flock of pious women who stood arrayed like wolves outside The Six.
“How dare you!” Easter, the head of the pack, bellowed. She advanced on them all, with one arm raised like the Statue of Liberty. “How dare you assault and waylay this man! This pillar of our community!” The pillar of the community lay on the ground being daubed with hankies. “You!“ She stabbed her black-gloved finger at Unk, “You, sir, and your foul establishment are a menace. A smudge,” she rubbed her finger over her cheek to illustrate what a smudge he was, “on the face of our righteous community.” Something caught her eye. “Sheriff!” she shrieked, pointing again at Unk, “Arrest him. Arrest him for corrupting a child.”
All eyes went now to Snarf, who was standing next to Unk.
“No child – so innocent and pure! – should be made to distribute wicked spirits!“
“I like wicked spirits!” Snarf shot back. The men roared their approval, patted him on the back, mussed his hair, and punched his shoulders.
Poor Easter’s heart nearly gave out. Sputtering, she turned to her flock, who had gotten the pillar of the community back on his feet. “Do not look back, ladies; remember Lot’s wife.” She spread her arms like a mother hen, bidding the ladies turn and retreat. They obeyed, with eyes downcast and averted.
Purl, however, looked back. A week of abstinence is a hard thing for any man to bear, and Purl, with his prodigious appetites, feared he lacked the strength to carry on.
“No, Purl. You have been bought with great price. Remember: you are a New Creation.”
Purl stopped, which meant the ladies had to stop too. They tugged and pulled at him, whispering, “Come, Purl,” and “You can do it, Purl, dear,” and other such encouragements.
Purl lifted his giant arm and pointed, not at the men on the porch of The Six, but at something in the road beside them. “An Indian,” he announced.
THE WAY OF THE SPIRIT: BOOK 1
“A man can pull a trigger in a second, but what happens after goes on forever.”
Twelve years ago, a baby boy appeared on the porch of his uncle’s saloon with no name and no living parents. Now he’s got a name, or a nickname at least, Snarf, and a head filled with wild dreams of becoming a bounty hunter. But when a lone Indian rides into town with a half-dead outlaw over his saddle, trouble comes for Snarf, propelling him onto a perilous adventure that will test his soul and change him forever.