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The Spirit Is Willing
By Max McCoy
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Max McCoy
All rights reserved.
On the first day of summer, when the frying pan of Kansas was just beginning to sizzle, and the people of Dodge City were keeping to the shadows, and the saloons and gambling halls and brothels of Front Street had yet to roar, a sun-beaten man cradling a sweat-stained King James Bible stumbled and fell hard on the wagon ruts in front of the China Doll bordello.
"Sweet Jesus," he cried.
The bawds came spilling from the front door like a magician pulling silk scarves from a hat, a flurry of color in an otherwise drowsy street cast in shades of dust. The girls puddled around the stricken man like butterflies. He protested weakly and extended a scabby finger toward the book, which had bounced from his hand and now lay tented just beyond his reach.
"Give me," he croaked.
The girls laughed and rolled him over onto his back.
The man's beard was matted, his dark hair was thick and greasy, and his lips were cracked and bloody. His dark clothes were of good quality, but stiff with dirt and streaked by sweat stains, and there was a ragged hole in the fabric over his left knee.
An auburn-haired girl cradled his head in her lap, while the others made soft nonsense sounds and gently placed their hands upon him. There were two blondes, a brown-haired girl, and a green-eyed celestial. The man's mad dark eyes studied their faces, each in turn, the three white girls and the mulatto and the lone celestial, and he was wondering perhaps why he was chosen for this bit of comfort, or whether he was about to be carried to his last reward in the arms of angels. But it wasn't their hearts that were made of gold; these girls were entrepreneurs, and while they spoke soothingly to him, they were running their hands through his pockets, searching for legal tender.
"C'est le bordel'," I muttered in French. It was an appropriate phrase because it literally refers to brothels, but means "What a mess."
I had been sitting in the cane chair on the porch in front of my agency window when I saw the man fall. I had been reading a story about an eclipse in a week-old paper from Kansas City, but I had a hard time following it because I hadn't slept well the night before. I had draped a wet kerchief around my neck in an attempt to keep cool, my favorite green one with the Paisley print, but it had little effect against the oppressive heat. For these reasons and more (the more would be a man named Calder) I was in a bad temper, but I couldn't leave the unfortunate man to the furies who had descended upon him. I was acquainted with the girl with the red hair because of a case from the previous winter, and although we shared the same color of tresses, the similarities ended there. The others I knew by reputation, if not by name. Throwing down the paper, I crossed the street and addressed the denizens of the China Doll.
"Hands off, girls," I said.
"Just because him a Sky Pilot don't mean that he beyond the quarantine line," said the girl I recognized. She called herself Hickory Lane and her voice was thick with the hills and hollers of Arkansas, and when she drank—which was only when she was awake—her sentences became laden with an extra helping of indefinite articles. "We all a had plenty of them preachers in the China Doll before and they not a one of them let that black book get between nature's intent and them a Sunday school lessons."
Hickory stood, letting the man's head drop onto the hard road with a sound like a ripe melon. She took a step or two back, but still held her defiant chin in the air.
"You were picking the pockets of a man who is half burned up and defenseless," I said.
"Still a man, ain't him?" Hickory shot back. "You a think he would shy from taking vantage of any one of us if'n he found us on our backs and outa our heads sick? Reckon him a get what is deserved."
"Don't matter anyway," the brown-haired girl said. "He didn't have nothin'."
"Fetch some water."
"Gets it your own a self," Hickory said.
"No time for your foolishness, Hickory," I said. "Fetch some water, please."
Hickory folded her freckled arms and shifted her weight to one ample hip. The other girls had drawn back and seemed less confident.
They exchanged glances and small words among themselves. The oriental girl, who the others called Rose, nodded and ran inside the house.
Hickory shook her head.
"Think a you're something, don't you?" she asked me. "You got a you another little mystery here, don't you? Where this Sky Pilot have a come from, what is a his name, and what him a doin' burning on the prairie? But all a your parlays with haints and your fancy man a clothes make you no different than a rest. You just another cat with a bad case of curious."
"For goodness' sake, Hickory," I said, although I may have used language a bit stronger than that, "hold your fire until later. There's a sick man here."
Hickory cleared her throat and spat theatrically in the dust.
"All this compassion has a left me dry," she said, and ambled off in the direction of the Saratoga saloon.
Kneeling next to the Sky Pilot, I took the green kerchief from my neck and draped the dampish cloth over his balding head. His skull gimbaled back on his neck to look into my eyes, and his lips formed a word.
"Water's coming," I said.
He shook his head.
I motioned for the Bible, and one of the blondes—her name was either April or May, I could never remember—picked it up from the dusty street and handed it to me. I placed the book on the Sky Pilot's chest, and he folded his hands over it.
"Thank you," he said.
Black-haired Rose came flying out of the house with an earthenware pitcher and a tin cup. I filled the cup and held it up to the man's battered lips, allowing him just a sip.
"Not too fast," I said.
He drank a bit, then coughed, then drank some more.
"Somebody get Doc McCarty," I called over my shoulder.
April—or was it June?—volunteered and set off down the street.
I looked down at the Sky Pilot and smiled, despite the stench from his skin and clothes. It was difficult to guess his age, because his face had been creased and broken by the sun, but his eyes—which were wide and dark and warm as walnuts—had a curious childlike quality.
"What happened to you?" I asked.
"The sun," he said.
"I know," I said. "How long were you alone on the prairie?"
"Wasn't alone," he said. "God was with me."
"And He couldn't lead you to water?"
"I thirsted," he said, then had to pause because his voice cracked. He took another sip of water. "I thirsted for righteousness, and was filled."
He stared up at me with a disturbingly beatific smile.
Rose came with McCarty in tow, her silk robe flapping immodestly about her thighs. Doc had one hand clamping his hat on top of his head and the other clutching his Gladstone bag.
"Slow down, Rose," McCarty pleaded.
Doc knelt on one knee and placed his hand on the man's forehead, then used a thumb to draw back an eyelid.
"What's your name?"
The Sky Pilot blinked in confusion.
"When's the last time you made water?"
"Don't know," he said.
Rose tried to give him more water, but Doc stopped her.
"Did he tell you anything, Ophie?" Doc asked me.
"Not much. Said he was out talking with God on the prairie."
"Delirium," Doc said.
He put his hands against the man's throat to feel his pulse.
Doc removed his stethoscope from the Gladstone, hooked the tubes in his ears, and let the instrument dangle while he undid the buttons of the man's shirt, from the belt buckle up. When he came to the Bible, he took the book from man's grasp and handed it to me.
"Hold this, please," Doc said.
The covers of the Bible were stiff as boards. Perhaps it was the amount of sweat and dirt the cover had absorbed, or perhaps it had gotten wet.
Doc slipped the business end of the stethoscope beneath the fabric of the man's shirt. "Will he live?" Rose asked.
Doc shushed her with the forefinger of his free hand.
Long seconds passed as he listened with intent. I liked the way Doc worked; he was businesslike and efficient, but was never in a hurry. He made it seem like the only patient he ever had was the one who was in front of him at the time. Then I wished that someone would pay that kind of attention to me, and the thought filled me with guilt, because I was jealous of the wretched man on the ground.
Doc removed the tubes from his ears, folded the stethoscope, and tucked the instrument back into the Gladstone.
"You'll recover," he told the Sky Pilot. "But it will take time, and it's not going to be pleasant.
Not only are you suffering from a terrible sunburn, you're also dehydrated. You're going to have to suck on ice chips for a spell before you can drink water, or it'll make you sicker. We can bathe you in tea and chamomile to ease the burn, but we'll have to watch for skin infections. Do you have somebody to take care of you?"
The Sky Pilot blinked.
"Do you understand any of what I've told you?" Doc asked louder. "You're going to need a place to stay, and medicine, and somebody to care for you."
"God will look after me."
"Is there no one made of flesh and blood to care for you?"
He shook his head.
"Where's your family?" Doc asked. "From whence did you come?"
"I don't know," the Sky Pilot said. "Can't remember."
"Anything in his pockets?"
"Girls already went through them," I said.
"They found nothing."
"Maybe there's an answer in that book of his."
"There is," the Sky Pilot said. "For you, and every other living soul."
The Bible was about the size of a cigar box, too small to be a family Bible, but about the right size for a presentation Bible, and there probably was an inscription. I opened the front cover, but discovered the first few pages had been ripped out, including the entire books of Genesis and Exodus.
"What happened to the first couple of dozen pages?" I asked.
"Not by bread alone," the Sky Pilot said.
"Meaning what?" Doc asked.
"But by every word of God."
"Talk sense," Doc ordered.
"I devoured them."
"You ate them," Doc said.
"I did," the Sky Pilot said, beaming.
"A bibliophage. That's a first for me."
"Will it hurt him?" Rose asked.
"I don't think there's anything in paper or ink that would do permanent damage, but I can think of easier ways to digest one's religion."
"Do you know Jesus, Doctor?"
"I won't discount any remedy in a medical crisis."
"How about you, sister?" the Sky Pilot asked, turning his attention to me. He reached and grasped the front of my shirt with surprising force and pulled me toward him. His breath was as dry and hard as the Old Testament. "Have you been saved?"
"Like Paul," I said, "I am working on my own salvation with fear and trembling."
I tried to pull away, but his grip was fast.
"Pray hard, sister. Time is short!" "Mind the shirt," I said. "Prayer won't pay the laundry to mend it."
"Come with me," he said, trying to rise. "To the river! The Arkansas is our River Jordan, and I shall baptize thee and the heavens will open and a voice will be heard!"
"Son, she ain't Him," Doc said. "Now, settle down before we have to knock you down."
He released his grip and his hand fell to the ground as if it were a bird that had been taken in flight.
"Preacher, I don't think you appreciate the danger you're in," Doc said. "Pay some heed to what I'm saying."
"I understand what you've said," the Sky Pilot replied. "But Jesus said to take no thought for your own life. Would you read it for me, sister?"
"Read it," he said.
"You haven't eaten it yet?" I asked.
"Are you familiar with the passage?"
"Luke, Chapter 12."
"You know your Bible."
I didn't tell him it was a necessity in my past profession as a con woman. Being able to quote the Bible with authority inspired trust, and came in handy when someone challenged your motives.
"It would be a comfort to hear the words," he urged.
"Please," Rose urged. "He wants it."
"Oh, all right," I said. "But he has to promise to stop this foolishness."
I opened the stiff book and thumbed the yellowing and dog-eared pages to the New Testament. In a moment, I had found the chapter and verse.
"'Take no thought for your life,'" I read. "'Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls?'"
"Amen," the Sky Pilot said.
"You're going to Amen yourself into feeding the turkey buzzards if you don't start tending your health," Doc said. "That would be akin to taking your own life, and you know what your book says about that."
"Ecclesiastes," the Sky Pilot nodded. "Don't be overly wicked, and don't be foolish. Why should one die before one's time?"
"He is howling mad," Doc said. "And I'm all out of notions."
"What will happen to him?" Rose asked.
"He can't care for himself, and he hasn't the money to pay someone to look after him," Doc said. "I reckon the city marshal will have to lock him up in the city jail until somebody can figure out what to do with him."
Silence fell like a wet burlap sack.
I don't know how the others felt, but I didn't want to take the Sky Pilot in because he smelled and ate books and was obviously insane. Uncharitable of me, I know. But he also scared me, because that grip of his was frighteningly strong. Also, I hadn't been sleeping well, which made me irritable and subject to snappishness.
All the girls were looking at the ground, some with their arms folded. I imagine they were thinking of what having to take care of a smelly lunatic with religious delusions would do to their business. But the quiet and the guilt began to gnaw on me, and I was just about to give in and say to bring him to the agency, when Rose looked up and brushed the hair from her eyes.
"I will," she said.
"At the sporting house?" Doc asked.
"There's a store room," she said. "It will be all right."
"What about Miss Phossy?" April—or it might have been May—asked.
Miss Phossy was the madam at the China Doll, and she was one of the most feared characters in Dodge City; not only was she as mean as a snake, but she had a countenance to match.
"Miss Phossy owes me," Rose said. "It will be all right."
"Good girl," Doc said. "Send to Sturm's for a block of ice to be delivered, and make sure you chip it up fine. I'll bring the chamomile along directly."
"Thank you, Rose," I said, and handed over the cannibalized Bible.
As I walked back across the scorching street to my agency, I had an uneasy feeling that dogged my steps. I was glad that Rose had agreed to nurse the Sky Pilot, but there was something about him that disturbed me. There was a mystery growing here. It wasn't just that we didn't know his name or where he'd been; the biblical reference to ravens and the missing pages of Genesis were a bit more than odd, considering my situation. I'd been a detective who consults spirits for a little more than a year now, with a pet raven named Eddie and an infuriating partner named Jack Calder. If there was one thing I'd learned, it was that things in Dodge City aren't just stranger than they appear.
Things are stranger than you could imagine.CHAPTER 2
The unfortunate I would come to know as Molly Howart appeared at the door of the agency at four o'clock on Sunday afternoon, three days after the appearance of the Sky Pilot, her hands cupped around her bloodshot eyes, her red face flattened against the window—a perfectly pitiful apparition.
She startled me so that I dropped my pen.
The nib skittered and left a looping trail of black ink over the top of the oak desk, my papers, and the right cuff of my best white shirt.
"Fils de salope," I exclaimed. Sonuvabitch.
This alarmed the raven on his perch in the corner, atop the bookcase, and he squawked and beat his wings.
"Midnight visitor!" he croaked.
"Settle down, Eddie," I said. "She's real enough, and it's not even noon."
I crossed to the door and tapped the pasteboard sign. Calder & Wylde, Consulting Detectives, was closed. The woman, however, gave no indication that she understood. She remained rooted by the window, eyes downcast, hands clasped. Alarmed that she might be suffering some kind of spell, I unlocked the door and opened it a crack.
Excerpted from The Spirit Is Willing by Max McCoy. Copyright © 2014 Max McCoy. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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