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 WAY OF THE SPIRIT: BOOK 1
“Justice ain’t like the sun, comin up every mornin whether it feels like it or not and shinin willy-nilly, but more or less equal, on everybody. No justice is like… well, it’s like breakfast; if you don’t make it, you don’t have it.”
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.