The Way of the Spirit: Book 2
“Craney’s coming… and he’s got the devil with him!”
Readers say Fleshwalker is “A great book. A page-turner.” “A western novel with a fresh voice.”
When Matthew Craney rides into Amity, Snarf thinks he’s there for vengeance. But Craney, guided by supernatural visions of the future, has darker plans for Snarf and his little town.
Can Snarf save everything he loves from a man bound to the devil?
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Matthew Craney waded into the blasted ruins of his bank. His people, including his wife, Jewel, stood in the street. He passed between the blackened studs that had been the bank’s doorframe. They stood up out of the ash like the ribs of some wild animal that had been cremated in a forest fire. Other than these ribs, the only thing left was the vault—the animal’s skull. Its blackened jaw—the vault door—yawned open, leaning a little on wrecked hinges.
It was the vault’s open door that had destroyed the bank. Yes, the dynamite had played a role, but the vault’s solid walls had focused the explosion, sending the destructive force tearing through the open door and into the rest of the structure with multiplied force.
Ash fell around Craney like grey snow.
He stepped over what was left of the teller line, crossed the little distance to the vault, and stepped into its jaws. His eyes twinkled as they surveyed the vault’s interior.
Gold coated the inside of the vault. The great pile of gold bricks, recovered from the coyote and stacked in the vault with so much ceremony, had been liquified by the dynamite’s heat and spattered all over the walls and ceiling by the explosion. Sure, some of it had been annihilated, but not much. Not much.
Craney smiled and turned to leave. He stopped halfway through his turn. His smile faded.
On the wall by the door was some black stuff—the kind of black stuff you find at the bottom of a messy oven. It was roughly man-shaped and it was roughly man-tall, and at about neck-height, there was a scrap of red cloth preserved from destruction by some conspiracy of bloody evaporation and watery convection.
Craney pulled the red cloth out of the black stuff, which flaked away and fell lightly onto the toes of his boots. The cloth was badly singed, but he could easily make out its paisley pattern. It was all that remained of a bandanna. Craney looked down at the black stuff on his boots and let out a snort. He didn’t bother shaking the black stuff off. After all, what was the difference between ash that had once been wood and ash that had once been Flint? Isn’t it all ashes to ashes and dust to dust?
Craney pocketed the bit of bandanna as he crossed back over the teller line, but he didn’t head for the crowd waiting in the street. He turned into the remains of an office—his office. All that was left of it was a border of shin-high studs, sheered away and splintered by the explosion.
His eyes searched the ash.
And came to rest on an angular bit of gold, sticking out of the ash like the tip of an iceberg out of a black sea.
He crossed the sea in two steps and squatted over the gilded iceberg, wincing on the way down because of his bad knees. The iceberg was a gilded picture frame. The frame was intact, but the silver halide print it had once held was gone. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
Craney stroked the place on the frame where there had once been a photograph of a face. The photograph may have been burned out of existence, but the face was still there, in his memory.
“My boy,” Craney whispered. He hugged the frame to his chest—pressing the memory of his son’s face into his heart.
He felt the air around him move, the way it does before a breeze begins. He looked up. And saw a windy disturbance in the ash, as if a bird were swooping over it and the movement of its passage was disturbing the ash. The disturbance was coming right for him. Craney turned white.
The disturbed ashes leapt at him and, even though the ashes had been cool as a corpse a moment ago, he felt them burning wherever they touched him. He tried to stand, but his bad knees betrayed him. With tears of pain streaking down his cheeks, he took a desperate breath and sucked in a lungful of the ash.
Jewel saw her husband collapse. “Matthew!” she cried. And she was over the blackened threshold of the bank and running to him. “Matthew!” He was convulsing in the ash, covering himself in it like a rabid animal rolling in its own droppings. “Matthew!” He had foam around his lips, and the foam was black with the ash, and his teeth were black too. “Matthew, please!” She lifted his thrashing head into her lap and held it there. The whites of his eyes rolled at her. His legs kicked, making his booted feet thump horribly. He still clutched the golden picture frame tight to his chest.
The men arrived and looked down at their thrashing boss.
Matthew went suddenly, instantly, finally still.
Jewel’s lips parted, and a tiny breath escaped.
Ash drifted slowly down around them.
Jewel put her hand on Matthew’s chest and felt the life still pounding in him. She shut her eyes, “He’s alive. He’s alive.”
She felt his head move in her lap. His eyes were open and clear and locked on hers.
She smiled back and wiped some of the black foam off his lips. “Are you alright?” she asked.
He took her hand in his, pressed it to his cheek, and nodded.
“I saw…” he shook his head, “I saw everything—everything that’s going to happen.”
She didn’t understand. Her eyes searched his for signs of madness or stroke, but found neither.
“I saw the future,” Matthew Craney said.
Snarf stood on the riverbank, shirtless in the grey dawn. His spine and ribs, rendered visible by growth and hard travel, slid as he breathed beneath the porcelain skin of his torso. The wind teased his hair and rippled the prairie grass. The grey clouds glided endlessly by, and the river slid past like quicksilver. Snarf’s motionless, iron-hard eyes were on the river.
Redskin joined him. They stood shoulder to shoulder before the river. Neither spoke. Eventually the silence of ceremony descended—the wind quieted, and with it the rustling of the grass. Even the babbling river reduced its conversation to a mere murmur.
Then Redskin spoke, “Water burial is a sacred ritual of our people. We are put under the water as the Son of the Great Father was put under the earth, and we are lifted out of the water as he was lifted out of death. In water burial we proclaim to him, ourselves, and all the world that we are dead men come to life, ready to live as he lived.” He looked at Snarf—the boy hadn’t taken his eyes off the water. “Why do you want to be buried?” he asked.
“I want to see the Son of the Great Father.”
“And why do you want to see him?”
“Because I wish to follow him.” His purpose proclaimed, Snarf waded boldly into the icy river. Redskin followed.
In the middle of the river, Redskin turned Snarf so they were perpendicular to one another; Redskin looking toward the shore, Snarf looking down the snaking length of the water.
“You will want to hold your nose,” Redskin said.
Snarf held his nose.
Redskin put his right hand on Snarf’s back, between his shoulder blades. He gripped Snarf’s wrist, the wrist of the hand Snarf was using to hold his nose, with his left hand, and announced, “I bury you in the name of the Great Father, His Son, and the Great Spirit.”
Snarf took a breath and closed his eyes.
Redskin pushed him backward into the water.
Black, icy darkness swallowed Snarf. He was weightless. And numb. He couldn’t feel anything except Redskin’s warm hands and the freezing water.
Redskin pulled him up.
Sputtering, Snarf wiped his eyes and looked around quickly, searching the river, its bank, and the surrounding prairie. But he saw only their horses and Redskin.
“It didn’t work,” he muttered. He turned for the shore.
Redskin caught his arm. The Indian’s eyes were fiery with zeal. “Sacred rituals always work.”
Snarf tried to pull away, but Redskin held him. “You must bury me.”
“Haven’t you been buried before?”
“I have followed the Son of the Great Father alone. Until now.”
Snarf glanced at Redskin’s scars and his wiry muscles. “I can’t bury you.”
“I’m just a kid.”
“No. You are a son of the Great Father. Young, old, red, white, man, woman none of these mean anything to our people.”
“Means something to me.”
Snarf tried to turn away, but Redskin held him and asked him again, this time with his eyes.
“He’s here, isn’t he?” Snarf asked. “You can see him?”
“Then let him bury you.” Snarf tore his arm away and waded out of the river.
Mary Beth watched him come. She tried to catch his eye, but he ignored her because he didn’t want to see the soft look of motherly reproach she was giving him.
He flipped open her saddle bag and yanked out a fresh shirt. Something heavy fell out of the shirt and onto the grass. It was DC’s sheriff badge. Snarf picked it up. It was wet with dew, which made the dried blood runny and brown. The blood got on Snarf’s hand. Disgusted, he buried the badge in the bottom of the saddle bag then wiped his hand on his pants.
While Snarf put on his shirt, Redskin lifted a heavy rectangular bundle out of one of Beautiful Feet’s saddle bags. He carried the bundle to Snarf.
Snarf saw him coming and knew from the bundle’s shape and from the flashes of gold between the folds of cloth that the bundle was Redskin’s gilded book.
“You believe I am special,” Redskin said, “because I can see the Son of the Great Father here, now, with my eyes. And you are frustrated because he has chosen not to reveal himself to you. Well, I am not special. I am alone.”
“Me too,” Snarf said bitterly.
Redskin went on, “Perhaps my experience is unique. I do not know.” He unwrapped the bundle. The rising sun gleamed on the book’s gilded cover. “But I do know that the Son of the Great Father can be seen by all, in this book.”
“Longest thing I ever read’s a Wanted poster.”
“This book must not be read alone; I will read it to you.”
“You read it alone.”
“I had many teachers. I did not listen to them, but I heard them. When I read now, I remember their words. It will be the same with you.”
“No, thanks,” Snarf said. “I just want to get home.” He climbed onto Mary Beth’s back. He could feel Redskin looking at him, so he fussed with Mary Beth’s reins.
“Snarf,” Redskin said, “this may be the only way.”
“We’ll see,” Snarf replied and he tapped Mary Beth with his heels. She started off.
Redskin wrapped up the gilded book and went back to Beautiful Feet. Together, they followed the river home.
Amity’s church bell rang wildly. Kit clung to its rope, letting the bell lift him clear off his feet as it swung and rang. He brought his legs up, to maximize the downward force on the rope, and the bell swung again and rang again, louder this time. Pleased with the clamor he’d created, Kit untangled himself from the rope, ran through the Ladies League, whose vigil he’d disturbed, and into Amity’s main street, where he took off his hat and waved it at a pair of distant riders. The smaller of the two riders waved his hat in return. Kit whooped and ran to them.
“It seems news travels fast,” Redskin said to Snarf.
Panting, Kit skidded to a stop in front of them. “I saw you first—it was me who rang the bell!” he bragged. Without asking, he clambered onto Boss’s bare back. “We need to get to General’s. That’s where everyone’ll be.”
“Everyone?” Snarf asked.
“Even Doc don’t wanna miss this! C’mon!”
Summoned by the bell, people poured out of every building in Amity, their faces shining like Christmas morning at the sight of the three riders. A smile even graced Easter’s purple lips, and wonder of wonders, a pair of dimples—unseen in a score of years—danced on her cheeks. Then she rounded on her soldiers, who hadn’t been so happy since the blessed news from Appomattox, and they took up their posts on the church steps, launching into a warbling rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Snarf sat on Mary Beth in the midst of all the clamor and gaiety, grinning like a boy who’d been kissed for the first time. Redskin, riding beside him, took it all in stride, knowing, like the Romans, that all glory is fleeting. Kit, mounted on Boss’s bare back, knew no such thing. He waved at the good people of Amity as if he’d been through the whole adventure with the heroes. Even the donkey seemed to kick up his heels a little at the cheering.
In front of General’s, a gallows had been erected and festooned with bunting. Now, gallows have a reputation as a place of public execution, but that was not their original function. Gallows were built for the display, sale, and loading of large goods—sacks of seed or fertilizer, that kind of thing—which, when purchased, could easily be lowered by rope through the platform via a trapdoor and into the back of a wagon below. The fact that this also provided the perfect platform for hanging a man by the neck until dead was one of those happy coincidences that sometimes happen in architecture.
The eager celebrants practically pulled Snarf and Redskin off their horses, and Kit shoved them breathlessly onto the gallows.
The cheers of all 143 rejoicing Amitians washed over them. Snarf beamed, Redskin studied the toes of his boots, the Ladies League concluded their final “glory, glory’s” then General, wobbling a little on account of his age and his gout, ascended to the platform.
He wore a new suit, newly rumpled but still quite respectable, and Snarf saw that before General had ascended the platform, he’d taken his hand from the arm of a handsome lady wearing an enormous hat.
“Snarf,” General announced, smiling and shaking his head as if he couldn’t believe it, “Snarf, on behalf of all Amity,” he paused dramatically, “welcome home!” He pulled Snarf into a bearhug as more cheers broke out.
General deposited Snarf, who was now a little rumpled himself, and waved for quiet. He got it.
“What gift does Amity have for its favored son, the boy who blew up an entire mountain and wiped a gang of scum off the earth with a single shot from his mighty pistol?”
Snarf itched a little at the exaggeration, but the crowd loved it.
General patted his pockets as if he’d misplaced something. “What gift does Amity have for-for…” A few chuckles ran through the crowd. The handsome lady with the big hat handed a cloth bag up to General.
He took the bag with a look of relief and displayed it to the crowd, who applauded obediently. “What gift does Amity have for its newest—and youngest!—sheriff?”
Snarf eyed the bag; it looked like it had a snake in it.
General plunged his hand in and pulled out a long black leather belt with a big black holster dangling from it.
Without asking, General set about wrapping the belt around Snarf’s waist. As he did, he whispered in his ear, “Paid for the shippin an handlin myself. It was pretty dear, sonny.” Then he winked at Snarf. Snarf smiled weakly.
General stepped aside with arms outthrust to display the conquering hero, newly girt in his black belt. The women clapped, a few of the men put their fingers in their teeth and whistled, some shabby little boys on the outskirts chucked clods into the air like fireworks, and the Ladies League warbled:
Mine eyes have seen the glory
Of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage
Where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning
Of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
During all this, General noticed something was missing from Snarf’s person. He leaned in. “Where is it?”
“Yer gun! Yer famous pistol! Where’s it at?”
Snarf pointed at Mary Beth’s saddle bags. Kit, seeing the exchange and catching General’s eye, dug in the bag. When he found Pap’s Pistol, he held it reverently for a moment before General snatched it from him.
General hoisted the huge saw-handled pepperbox pistol aloft for all to see. Over the cheers, he declared a benediction: “Snarf, may you, now sheriff of Amity, and this hallowed gun watch over the people of Amity forever.”
Then he knelt on one gouty knee and held Pap’s Pistol out to Snarf like a knight presenting his sword to a king.
But Snarf didn’t take the gun, and he didn’t want to take it.
The people, feeling something had gone wrong in the ceremony, craned their necks and stood on tiptoes.
Snarf glanced at the crowd. One man stood out. Black haired, with thick arms crossed over his broad chest, he was glaring hard at Snarf. Below the knee, the man’s right leg was made of wood. Snarf took Pap’s Pistol.
Everyone cheered. And one of the shabby boys, transported by enthusiasm, shrieked, “Shoot it!” The call caught on, and soon the whole crowd was chanting, “Shoot it! Shoot it! Shoot it!”
So loud was their call that General couldn’t hear when Snarf tried to tell him the pistol wasn’t loaded. Snarf opened the gun and showed General the empty barrels. But that was no excuse! General got Kit’s attention, and a handful of bullets were passed up.
Reluctantly, Snarf thumbed them into the barrels. He looked at Redskin then, whose face was grave. Unreadable. With a deep breath, Snarf raised the pistol into the air and fired.
Only one round went off. The shabby little boys booed. Snarf pulled the trigger again, and the pistol thundered like a canon as all five of the remaining rounds exploded. The shabby little boys whooped in ecstasy, the women put their gloved hands to their heaving bosoms, the men frowned at the impressive strength of the weapon and nodded at one another, and the Ladies League concluded the ceremony with a final round of “Glory, glory, hallelujah!”
Snarf, invisible in the cloud of smoke, couldn’t bring himself to look at the pistol, and he couldn’t bring himself to drop it to the platform, and he couldn’t bring himself to holster it. So he just lowered it to his side and held it there as he walked off the stage like a man carrying a heavy hammer to some loathsome task.
General, with the handsome lady on his arm, led Snarf and Redskin into Amity’s jailhouse. All was exactly as Snarf remembered it. The kitchenette, the table, the desk, the bed in the alcove tight enough to make a submariner sweat—all was exactly as it had been on that night long ago when he, Redskin, and DC had decided to go after Craney and his gold. Except there were flowers on the table, and to say the place had been cleaned would be an understatement. It had been purified.
“Blas” (the strangely spelled name was pronounced blaze) “was our interim sheriff,” General explained to Snarf as the boy wandered into the kitchenette. “When we heard you was comin, we sacked him, and the Ladies League scrubbed the place—cleanliness is next to godliness and all that.”
The handsome woman went, “Hmph.”
“You’ll have to forgive my Tishie,” General said, blushing because he’d made a marital error in complimenting the League. “She don’t truck with them hoity-toity gals.”
Tishie, mollified, nodded at General, and his color assumed its usual pallor.
Snarf set Pap’s Pistol on the table then ran his hand along the back of one of the two kitchen chairs. It came away glossy with furniture oil. He wiped it on his pants and turned toward the stove.
“We’re starting you at a dollar a week, plus two dollars for every arrest and five cents a mile for travel expenses. But yer not gonna need to travel to find action. No, sir! Purl has fallen off the wagon right here in Amity and, when a man that big falls, he makes a dent.”
Snarf’s head was buried in the stove, so General looked at Redskin for a laugh. Redskin was not amused.
“Well, I just mean you may have trouble with him sooner rather than later is all. Blas wanted to take him, but I wouldn’t let him—bad odds, a man with only one leg goin against a feller with two. And besides, we’re all anxious to see you put Purl in his place like you did Craney and his gang.”
Snarf pulled his head out of the oven and looked around. “It’s all so…” he trailed off.
“Different.” Snarf said, and he sat on the bed. “I didn’t think anyone would notice us. And, General, you’re mayor!”
“Oh, no! I ain’t the mayor—we’re too small to bother with a mayor. I’m just a man of influence and affluence.” He put his thumbs in his suspenders.
“Yeah, but when I left you were-“
“A pitiful ole run down widower?”
“Well…” Snarf admitted.
“That night—the night DC told me to do what I could about the fire—that night changed everything. People listened to me. I don’t know why. And, Tishie,” he put his arm around her, “when she came to town, she noticed me. And, well, I guess bein listened to and noticed did me a power of good. And all thanks to DC.” General realized he’d stepped in it, and his thumbs came out of his suspenders. “What I mean is-“
“I know what you meant, General. DC changed a lot of people.”
General cleared his throat again. “Well, yes. Um, he did. Just keep your eyes open for Purl, and let me know if you need anythin.” He turned to leave then stopped. “You got a badge or you need us to acquire one for you?”
General saw Snarf had no idea what he was talking about. “A badge. A tin star. You know, the shiny thing that tells everyone you’re the law in these parts, and this town ain’t big enough for the two of you and all that. Blas’ll make one for you if needs be.”
“You want me to be sheriff?” Snarf asked. “Sheriff of Amity?”
“That’s only what I’ve been talkin to you about fer the last five minutes! You think I’ve just been passing the time of day? I laid out yer pay and everythin.”
“I can’t,” Snarf said, his eyes on the floor.
“I can’t be sheriff.”
“Cain’t be—you are sheriff, sonny. You been dully elected. The people have spoken—you heard em. Democracy has run its course and chosen you—and me—to lead this here town. To say no to democracy would be … well, it would be tyrannical, sonny. We’ve had greatness thrust upon us.”
Snarf chewed his lip. His eyes were on the table where he’d left Pap’s Pistol, but they had a faraway look in them. General wasn’t sure the boy had heard him.
Redskin spoke up. “Snarf is a Son of the Great Father now. Violence has no place on his path. That is why he cannot be sheriff.”
“Son’a the who?”
“The Great Father.”
General frowned. His eyes went back and forth between the Indian and the boy while his mind put together what pieces of the puzzle it had in a way that made sense but wasn’t strictly speaking accurate. General went to where Snarf was sitting on the bed and stood in front of him with his fists on his hips. The boy looked up at him.
“I don’t know what kind of spell this injun’s put on you, but it’s time you woke up.”
Snarf looked at the floor.
“Listen here now, sonny. Crazy religions are all well and good for the downtrodden and the outcast and the pitiful. But you’re- well, you’re… not to put too fine a point on it, but,” General leaned down and whispered, “yer white. And, and it’s just not bein done,” General concluded with his thumbs in his suspenders again.
Snarf picked at a callous.
Tishie spoke up. Her voice sounded surprisingly feminine after all the plain man speech of the last few minutes. “You don’t want to be sheriff. What do you want?”
“I guess…” Snarf trailed off.
“I guess I hadn’t thought about it much, but I was thinking, General, you’d have rebuilt The Six or something like her. And I could cook for you.”
General looked at Tishie. He didn’t know what to do with the boy.
“General,” Tishie said, “why couldn’t we rebuild the Six?”
“Well, for one, the Ladies wouldn’t like it.”
“I’d like it.”
General grunted as if to say, I bet you would like stirrin them all up. And he wrung his suspenders half to death and paced the room. Then he stopped suddenly, laughed, snapped his suspenders, and clapped his hands. “This is a cinch! Try this on: I’ll do just what you said—I’ll honor Unk’s lease and rebuild The Six. You cook for me on Free Lunch Days and sheriff the rest of the time. As soon as you take down Purl—and make a show of it to please them unwashed masses who’ve put us in this pickle—you “retire” from sheriffin, Blas takes over, and you take up yer station in The New Six on a permanent, full-time basis. How does that fiddle?” General asked, putting out his hand for Snarf to shake and beaming at Tishie, who positively glowed back at him.
“What about the Ladies League?” Snarf asked, hoping to find a way of escape.
“They can light a shuck!” Tishie cried, reverting to some slang she remembered from her very misspent youth.
Snarf looked at Redskin. Redskin gave the tiniest shake of his head.
General noticed the Indian’s disapproval.
“Do I have to be sheriff?” Snarf asked.
“I don see how you git round it.”
Snarf didn’t either. So, despite Redskin, he shook General’s hand. General smiled and mussed his hair. “See, this is what influence and affluence’s all about—wheelin an dealin—makin folks happy.” He slapped his tummy. “An I for one am happy as a plum. Three months of wedded bliss and no saloon to escape to-“ he whistled and winked at Tishie. “It’s a wonder I’m breathin.” Tishie kissed him on the cheek playfully, and they toddled out of the jailhouse, arm in arm.
Snarf sat on the bed, looking at the floor between his feet. Redskin studied him.
Eventually, Snarf stood and went for the door.
“Where are you going?” Redskin asked.
“To put the animals away,” Snarf replied, and he left.