Sheriff Kowalski was standin’ in the middle of what the people round here called Main Street, a dustbowl track between the two rows of ramshackle clapboard houses that made up the town of Hope Springs, the worst named town in the west. Hope had never sprung here, hell it had never even shown its face, too ‘shamed to be here, in the armpit of despair. And Sheriff Kowalski knew despair all right. Perhaps standing was too strong a word for what he was doing right now, sure, he was upright enough if you squinted, or imagined that the town was on a slope rather than on the wide open plain, but his foot was bent out at the ankle, scuffing his already more than half-wrecked boots, and he was staring straight into the sun. His face was covered in stubble that you could light vespers with, if you dare get that close, and a bottle of that polish moonshine of his, that stuff they say he gets Widow Vecchio to make him up in her bathtub out of potatoes, was dangling from his hand. A strand of that dirty blond hair of his slipped out of his hat, and into his eyes, but he made no effort to push it back.
There was a wind blowing in from the North and it was beginning to get all ferocious like, picking up the dust and blasting it around the place in currents and eddies, like water, like wild white water over rocks, some folks fancy you can drown in it, when the dust gets like that. And Ray Kowalski was one of those folks alright, standing there in the dust, waiting for it to blow his troubles away, blow his breath away, take his soul away. It can’t be suicide, if your instrument’s an act of god, can it now?
Now the good father had been pretty darn clear about what happened to suicides in the sweet hereafter, and well, Ray didn’t like the sound of it much, to put it plainly, but then he wasn’t going to be a suicide, now, was he? Nosiree, he was just going to stand out here like a good god fearing man, and drown, accidental like.
And then he rode into town. The stranger in a red jacket, all fancy with braid, and with a dog the likes of which Ray had never seen trotting close to his horse, standing out like a temperance campaigner in a brothel, which is close enough to what Hope Springs was, when it came down to it, a little piece of Sodom and Gomorrah on God’s Earth, sitting in the plains like some sceptic jewel.
Ray hadn’t wanted this, hadn’t wanted Hope Springs, hadn’t wanted to be in Hope Springs after Vecchio had run to the Pinks and Stella had left him in a barrage of skirts and frills for a better run at life. Hope Springs was never his prize, he only got the town because nobody else wanted it, and that included him. Hope Springs never wanted him either, just as well that he’s about to go, and a pine church suit would be his goodbye gift from a lover that never wanted him or his interfering ways.
And then the stranger had gone and ridden into town, and Ray’s life would never be the same again. For starters, Ray would have a life, since the stranger would be the one to drag him out of the storm, and hold him firm until it ended. The stranger with raven-black hair and those eyes as blue as the sky above the snow, ‘cept Ray hadn’t seen snow yet, not here in Hope Springs, and wouldn’t see the snow, carpeting the world with its deadly cold beauty for some time yet.
And there was the stranger, on a bay mare, with some kind of dog followin’ in behind him. The horse was slow and looked liked it had lamed itself, ridden too hard and too fast for too long. A long hard ride, right. So why did the stranger in his scarlet jacket look like he’d just stepped out of StLaurent’s boarding house for temperate men. Though, seemed to Ray that Louise’s idea of temperate was still possessed of a temperate, provided you were quick and in possession of a maybe three dollar a night, you were more than assured of her hospitality. There were even buckets to puke in. Classy joint.
And riding out of the sun, came the stranger, the dark in front of him making that fine jacket of his look even more like the colour of blood, old dry blood, from a fight long done. The way the light was behind him, it made him look like an angel, a bloody war-weary angel.
He came to a stop right in front of Ray, and that dog of his started licking at Ray’s battered boots, it was kind of big for a regular dog. Ray realised with a start, raising out of his alcoholic stupor, that this was no dog, “What the fuck are you doing bringing a goddamn wolf into town, you nut?”
What do you know, the angel wore braid, all gold and shining against that blood red jacket. The angel tipped his hat up, out of his eyes, sure, this stranger’s momma must have bought him up real nice, but then guys who are bought up real nice don’t go travelin’ with just two guns in his belt and a rifle on his back, and a wolf at his side, “Actually, it’s a wolf-hybrid,” said the angel, his vowels all flat, like his horse had stepped on them, “I think.”
“It’s greatness that you’re so bloody sure about the fucking provenance of your fucking four legged friend here, mister,” and the booze had long since made Ray angry and bitter, only difference now was that he had somebody to be angry and bitter at, or ‘least somebody here, in Hope Springs, rather than Vecchio gone out to Florida with the Pinkertons and god only knew where Stella had gone, unless, she’d gone the same time as Vecchio, and Ray was right now real hoping she hadn’t gone with him. To loose the woman of his dreams is one thing, to loose him to the guy who skipped on him and left him with a star he didn’t want is another.
And the stranger started all polite like, “I’m looking for Sheriff Kowalski.”
“Yeah, you found him, God help you.”