"Axe-Man, Axe-Man, sharpen your blade. Make all the girls and boys afraid. Sheriff got a gun, went bang-bang-bang. If they find the Axe-Man, he is sure to hang."Kelly is a 25-year-old woman living in Grunwald, a small town set in the forested Green Ravine river valley in the Texas Hill Country. She takes note of the dwindling congregation at the old church, St. John's. She approaches the pastor, Gordon Clegg, to ask for an interview for the local paper. His wife, Maggie, invites Kelly to dinner some evening soon. Kelly then joins her parents at Bellwether, a famous megachurch that has recently relocated to just outside Grunwald. Kelly compares the flashy showmanship of pastor Chester Cotton to the much more reserved Gordon.
After the service, Kelly has a heated conversation with her mother. Kelly's mother wishes she would divorce her wayward husband and move back home with them to get back on her feet, which Kelly refuses to do.
The next week leads into the Veterans Day celebration, a big event in Grunwald due to its long military tradition. The mayor, Martin Vintner, makes a speech, but it is taken over by Cotton. Kelly leaves the celebration to visit the local museum, where her husband Garrett is in town just long enough to tell the myths of Grunwald's founding to a group of children.
The story introduces Momma Kodi, the guardian of the town, and her husband, Brennen Firehide the wolf King of the Forest. Garrett tells the children how the nearby forest is in the grip of a curse that comes out at night. He explains how the land used to be ruled by a cruel king named Eld Stagger, as well as his thugs Drag-Belly and Anvilback, but Kodi and Firehide defeated them and rule in their stead. The children ask Garrett to tell them the tale of the Axe-Man, but he refuses.
After the story, Kelly and Garrett meet up with Sammie and her husband Phil. They also run into Rachael and her daughter Laylah, but Rachael gives Kelly and Sammie the cold shoulder. Kelly tries to convince Garrett to stay in town longer, but he leaves again.
Kelly visits the local library and drafts up an article about the Veterans Day celebration, but Sammie calls her to say she had a car accident in the woods and cannot find Emma Lee. Kelly rushes to the scene, as does Cotton and David Branchett, the Grunwald chief of police.
Rather than start a search, Cotton leads a prayer circle, which annoys Kelly into striking off on her own with little more than a knife and flashlight. In the woods, Kelly stumbles across a clearing with an evil-looking tree much like one described in Garrett's story. A dark mist covers the ground. Kelly encounters the boy, who points her in Emma Lee's direction. Kelly comes upon a small clearing where Emma Lee is safely with Momma Kodi. Kelly sneaks the child away, but the bear awakens and pursues her until she makes it back to the road.
The next day, Cotton personally asks Kelly to be at the next Bellwether service. Kelly returns to the woods and speaks with the boy. The boy explains that the black mist was part of the curse of the forest, and he advises Kelly to be on the lookout for the Axe-Man.
Kelly goes to Gordon and Maggie's home, where she interviews Gordon about Bellwether's effect on Grunwald. When Kelly tells them that she saw Momma Kodi, Gordon tells her that the Grim Halberdier, the Axe-Man, was a real serial killer that terrorized Grunwald in 1915 until he was shot by David Branchett's ancestor, Angus Branchett. The three make plans to access the library archives and get more information.
Kelly pens an article questioning the benefits of modernization on Grunwald and turns it in to the Green Grapevine's editor, Ike. She then joins her parents for dinner, during which she accidentally lets slip that she believes in Grunwald's tall tales. The next morning, Cotton calls her to offer a one-on-one counseling session in response to her mother's concerns. Sammie encourages Kelly to attend.
During the service, Cotton calls Kelly and the Hagen family to the stage, where Vintner and Branchett present Kelly with the Mayor's Medal of Honor for rescuing Emma Lee. Kelly joins Cotton for the private counseling session directly afterward. Cotton offers Kelly an apology for his inaction and explains his reasoning. This prompts Kelly to tell him more background information about herself, her father's surveying business, her husband's injury during military service, and the miscarriage that nearly ended their marriage. Garrett is always out of town because he is doing volunteer disaster relief at the coast. She also reveals to Cotton that Rachael's husband, Mickey, was killed in the same blast that injured Garrett. Cotton reveals to her that he had taken a bullet in Vietnam, injuring his arm.
Kelly discovers that Laylah is missing, and Rachael blames her. Kelly tries to summon the forest boy, which causes Sammie some concern. Kelly joins her in-laws at the archives, where she discovers a letter from 1915 written by a woman named Muriel Greaves to her deceased husband. The letter mentions the bear, the forest boy, the Grim Halbderdier, and a moneylender named Cyril Crayford. Kelly is unsure what to do, but Maggie and Gordon convince her to call Garrett. He drops what he is doing and rushes home to his wife.
Kelly and Garrett arm themselves and travel into the forest that night. A rainstorm arrives. The two manage to take the boy away from the Axe-Man, but Anvilback appears and lures Momma Kodi into the river for a fight. The bear is ambushed by Drag-Belly, and the two beasts nearly kill Kodi until Garrett distracts them by imitating King Firehide with a howl. Drag-Belly turns his attention to the couple. While Kodi overpowers and drowns Anvilback, Kelly manages to fire a shotgun slug down Drag-Belly's throat. The bear finishes the crocodile off by slamming him into the Fangstone before collapsing in exhaustion.
Garrett was injured by Drag-Belly during the fight, and Kelly drops him off at the hospital before taking the boy home with her. Kelly spends the night writing an account of the battle at the river and submits it for publication in the newspaper. Ike, uninterested in the town lore and frustrated with Kelly's inconsistent and sporadic work, fires her.
The boy confirms he had known Muriel, and the Grim Halberdier's attacks during her time were part of an attempt to revive the Eld King. He thinks Kodi did not appear to stop the Grim Halbderdier because Muriel was in jail instead of in the forest. The boy tells Kelly that he is the Leviathan and he and the dark mist are different aspects of the same being, separated long ago by the boy's "father" trying to cure evil. He theorizes that Kodi and Firehide are also part of the Leviathan. Kelly names him "Ethan."
Kelly's mother and Sammie both become extremely worried when she tells them the Axe-Man kidnapped Laylah. Even Cotton is not helpful, as he is busy with the mayor helping the county organize a search for the girl. Kelly and Ethan visit Garrett at the hospital, but Branchett and his deputy Joe Collins arrive to arrest Kelly. They tell her an anonymous tip was given that she was abusing her husband and kidnapping both Ethan and Laylah.
At the Grunwald jail, Kelly's parents reassure her that she should cool her heels for the night and they will help get her out in the morning. Garrett arrives and gives Kelly some papers that Gordon and Maggie had found in the archives. Cotton reveals to Garrett that Kelly had been preparing to divorce him after the loss of their baby, enraging Garrett into abandoning Kelly at the jail. Cotton then takes Ethan and leaves.
Alone and despondent, Kelly reads the information Garrett had given her. One is a missing person report stating that the moneylender Cyril Crayford had not been seen since the night the Grim Halberdier was shot. Another is a detailed forensic report of a skeleton with a bullet wound from the same type of gun Angus Branchett would have carried, in the exact same location as Cotton's wound. Kelly puts it together that Cotton is Cyril Crayford AKA the Grim Halberdier AKA the Axe-Man, revived by the Leviathan as part of its gamble to bring back the Eld King.
A soothing voice tries to talk Kelly out of taking action, but she ignores it. Gordon and Maggie arrive and convince Collins to let Kelly out. She confronts Garrett, who reveals that he was never angry and was just faking the fight to make Cotton think he had won. The four of them come up with a plan to get the drop on Cotton.
Kelly travels into the woods while Garrett calls the police and falsely confirms the allegations made against her, stoking the town into a witch hunt. Kelly feeds into their panic by acting hysterical on the phone with Sammie.
Kelly reaches the clearing and eavesdrops on a conversation between Ethan and Cotton, in which Cotton calls this world "fake." Ethan tries to intimidate Cotton with mention of both his father and a "pale man," but Cotton scoffs at the threat. Cotton prepares to sacrifice Laylah to trade her soul to the Leviathan in exchange for that of the Eld King, but Kelly distracts Cotton long enough for the townsfolk to arrive.
The entire town witnesses Cotton's transformation into the Axe-Man. He defeats the police and attempts to sacrifice Laylah, but Rachael tries to save her daughter. Kodi arrives in time to save them and does battle with the Axe-Man. The ghoul is too fast for her, and he severely injures her. Kelly manages to get Ethan free, and Garrett wounds the Axe-Man with Branchett's heirloom revolver, the same gun that had killed Cyril Crayford in the first place. The distraction gives Kodi time to summon her husband.
King Firehide overpowers and cripples the Axe-Man before leaving with Kodi. Kelly accepts apologies from her family and friends, but the Axe-Man sacrifices himself in place of Laylah. A decomposed version of Eld Stagger is revived, and he attacks Grunwald by enveloping it in shadow.
Kelly stands against Stagger, aided by her family as well as Firehide and Kodi, but they are defeated one by one. Stagger prepares to kill Kelly, but the mothers of the town interpose themselves in front of the Eld King. The action gives Kodi enough strength to engage Stagger in direct combat. She is defeated again, but it makes Kelly realize that she is not the only one connected to Kodi--any act of motherly protection witnessed by Ethan gives power to the bear. This leads Kelly to understand that Ethan is the true central force of the Leviathan, not the dark mist. Encouraged by Kelly and Garrett, Ethan takes control of the shadow and turns it against Stagger, finally killing him permanently.
In the aftermath of the battle, Vintner and Branchett drop the charges against Kelly. Her mother and Garrett make peace, and he commits to finding a new mission that will keep him in town with his wife.Seven months later, Kelly is now in charge of the library. She and Garrett bring their newly adopted son, Ethan, to summer Bible school.
- This book was the third written and published. After its publication, it was placed as the opener of the series due to being a shorter and more accessible read than In Sheep's Clothing: The Healer.
- Momma Grizzly's location and events are fictional, but several real-life Texas locations are mentioned including San Antonio, Bulverde, New Braunfels, and Canyon Lake. The book is partially a love letter to this area, where the author grew up.