Lucky Jack was three days deep into the desert when the wolf found him. His canteen was drained to the dregs, filled with nothing but stale air, and the distant riders were growing increasingly less distant. He could see the little puffs of dust kicked up by their horses' hooves rising into the air. His own horse had collapsed in a heap of heaving, boneless exhaustion earlier that day.
How the wolf found its way this far into the desert was anyone's guess. It was of the timber variety, an enormous, grey, shaggy beast, which had no business in this dustbowl wasteland. He had noticed it tracking him just after his horse had died, and now it was watching him from behind a scrubby bush, sitting up on its hind legs like a dog, black eyes scrutinising him with a curiously intelligent gaze.
Jack wiped the sweat from his forehead with a corner of his faded red bandana. Now that he was on foot, the riders were gaining on him. He could almost make out voices carried on the breeze.
The wolf got up, shaking the dust from its fur and ambled closer. Jack watched wearily. The animal did not appear to be stalking him, its movements were too casual. But, this far away from its natural sources of prey, it must be hungry.
The way Jack saw it, he was going to die today. How and when, was still up for debate. Either his pursuers would catch up with him, or the desert sun would do their work for them, or… Like his water supply, Jack figured his luck had just about dried up.
Jack drew his revolver. He had only three bullets left, and he would prefer not to waste them on the wolf when there were other, more deserving targets on their way. But, he also preferred not to be devoured half-alive.
Jack stared at the wolf and the wolf stared back. It opened its mouth wide, tongue lolling out, almost seeming to laugh at his predicament.
And then, in the space of a heart-beat, and in two gigantic bounds, the wolf was on him. Jack was quick off the draw, but the wolf was quicker. It was enormous, much larger than the scrawny creatures Jack had crossed paths with in the past. He stood perfectly still. If the beast chose to, it could tear out his throat before he had time to twitch his trigger finger.
The wolf wagged its tail and flopped over onto his feet, raising a sizeable cloud of dust. Jack gave a yelp of surprise and then automatically tried to take a step backwards, but the weight draped over his boots trapped him. The wolf wriggled around on the ground and raised its head, looking at Jack expectantly. Gingerly, he reached down and scratched the wolf's belly. It wagged its tail enthusiastically, and twisted its head to lick Jack's hand with a scratchy tongue.
'Well I'll be tarred and feathered,' Jack said, 'looks like old lady luck's still got a hand or two to deal me.' The wolf yipped as if in agreement and rolled over, sitting up again, ears pricked, staring intently towards the growing dust clouds.
Jack stood and waited for the inexorable hand of fate to catch up with him at last. In due time, the riders arrived in a swirl of red dust. There were five of them, and not a man was packing less than two guns apiece. Jack had only three bullets, and even he was not that lucky.
'If it isn't Jacky-boy,' one of the men said, his grin flashing gold, 'fancy meeting you out here.'
'What do you want O'Hanlon?' Jack asked, knowing perfectly well what the answer was.
'Well now, Jack-me-lad,' O'Hanlon said, 'I've heard some alarming rumours about you. Rumours that, if they were true, would put a wee bit of a damper on our friendship.'
'Oh,' Jack said, 'and what rumours might they be. Friend,' his fingers drifted down to kiss the grip of his revolver.
O'Hanlon clasped a large meaty hand across his heart, 'I can hardly stand to repeat them. So terrible they are. Folks been saying you stole from me Jack-lad. That you done taken what's mine.' O'Hanlon leaned down closer, his expression was not so friendly anymore. 'They're saying you stole away my wife, Jack. And I'd have to kill you if you did it Jack. It would be a crying shame, but I'd have to kill you.'
'I don't know what you're talking about,' Jack said.
Jack did know what he was talking about.
O'Hanlon ran the whole town, and everybody knew it. The sheriff was fathoms deep in his pocket, and the undertaker made a killing out of anyone fool enough to think there was any kind of justice to be found in the law. He was a big man, with a silver tongue and a ruthless soul. His wife was a tiny slip of a thing with a look of perpetual terror in her soft brown eyes and the bruises to explain why.
While Jack cheated far less than people thought, he did not exactly enjoy the reputation of an honest man. However, no-one would have accused him of being a heartless one. Travels had brought him through town enough times to notice the pale drawn face of O'Hanlon's bride, and the painful way with which she carried herself. So, Jack decided to do something about it. Partly, because he could hear the ghost of his dead mother scolding him from beyond the grave, partly because he had never liked O'Hanlon, and partly because he had an unholy urge to see just how far his luck would stretch.
Accordingly, one fateful night, he strolled up to the poker table and cheated like a politician. They didn't call him lucky for naught, and by the evening's close, he had enough money to buy the lady a new life. Despite the fact that after this streak, returning would be suicide, it had given him a particular kind of thrill, knowing he had paid for the flight of O'Hanlon's battered wife with O'Hanlon's own money. After all, the man owned the saloon and the soul of near everyone in it.
'I think there's been some kind of misunderstanding,' he said calmly, 'I don't make a habit out of stealing other people's wives. So perhaps you and your boys should turn around and ride back into town before someone gets hurt.'
'Oh, someone's going to get hurt sure enough,' O'Hanlon said, 'but not before you've told me where I can find that empty-headed little slut I was crazy enough to hitch up with.'
'I can't do that,' Jack said, 'because I don't know.'
'Oh and here I was hoping you might say that,' O'Hanlon grinned again. His eyes looked almost black. 'Victor does enjoy engaging in a bit of what you might call – friendly persuasion.'
Victor, a slouching, wiry man with a sallow, unhealthy complexion smiled, exhibiting his rotting teeth, like a row of tilting gravestones.
Beside Jack, the wolf began to growl. It was a low sound, which seemed to reverberate through the ground like a wave. One by one, the tiny hairs on the back of Jack's neck stood to attention. He looked down, and the wolf was snarling, lips peeled back over fleshy pink gums and long curving teeth.
O'Hanlon seemed to finally notice the wolf. He laughed, 'I see you've found a bitch of your own. When I'm through with your sorry hide, maybe I'll skin myself a fine new winter coat.'
Lucky Jack had always suspected he wouldn't die with his boots off, he had only hoped it would be the drink that got him, rather than a bullet. His fingers closed around the grip of the revolver, and he slid it out of the holster.
'Get to work boys,' O'Hanlon drawled, 'leave enough so's he can speak, but I've got no need of the rest of him.'
Victor swung himself down from the saddle with the agility of a man accustomed to fighting in alleyways. The other men followed.
Lucky Jack cocked his revolver and stood his ground. He weighed the odds and found them wanting.
The wolf was gone. It moved like a streak of liquid silver. Like a ghost.
Victor went down hard, blood welling up from the piece of meat which was once his throat. He lay on the ground, his hands wrapped around his neck, trying to breathe his own blood.
Big Ned Foster fumbled for his revolver, but it had turned on him, a creature made of teeth and death. He screamed when it first pinned him to the ground, but the screams bubbled away into silence when those merciless jaws closed around his throat.
Wild Dan Harris manged to fire off a couple of rounds, but it was too fast and his terror had crippled his aim. In those final moments, it seemed to grow larger, a thing of monstrous proportions, and then Dan Harris knew no more of this earthly plane.
Ule Smith was on his horse by now, but the great grey head turned his way, the snout slathered with gore. The dust from O'Hanlon's tracks were still settling. As most bullies are wont to do, he had turned tail the minute the odds started to shift.
Ule made it barely one hundred yards when the fangs clamped down on his wrist. His horse shied and bucked, its eyes rolling back into its skull in a paroxysm of terror. The stone which broke his back as he landed was a mercy. He didn't even feel it when his hand was torn off. All he felt was the hot sun on his face, and then, nothing at all.
O'Hanlon fled across the wasteland as if the devil himself were on his trail. The only sound for miles was of hooves pounding against the sun-baked earth. His horse galloped at an incredible speed, fear, and the bite of O'Hanlon's spurs lending it wings.
Something caught his eye. A flash of grey and white – colours not usually found out here amongst the dust and the twisted scrub. An icy hand of horror gripped his chest as he looked to his right. The wolf was keeping pace with him. It seemed to have grown bigger, almost of a size with the horse. O'Hanlon was not a religious man, but at the sight of those calculating grey eyes he began to pray. The wolf rolled back its lip, and it seemed to O'Hanlon that it was smiling at him.
With an almost effortless bound, the wolf outpaced him. For a moment, he thought it might keep going, until it melted away into the desert air.
Then, he saw what it really meant to do, and for the first and only time in his life, O'Hanlon screamed, as he felt the hot breath of death bearing down on him.
Lucky jack stared at the bodies lying around him. It had all happened so damn fast. He had his revolver in hand, ready to go down in a hail of bullets. But, before he even had occasion to fire a shot, it had killed them all. O'Hanlon had fled, the wolf had followed and now he was alone with the dead.
He saw it then, in the distance. As the wolf drew closer, he noticed something was hanging from its jaws. It trotted up to him, and dropped the canteen it was carrying at Jack's feet. He bent down and scooped it up, absentmindedly rubbing away the blood which clung to the strap. He took a deep swig. It was warm and stale, but it was still water, and out here, that meant more than a nugget of gold.
Lucky Jack hung the canteen at his side and walked over to what was left of the bodies. Methodically, he stripped them of anything of use – money ammunition and most importantly, water. The horses had all bolted, so he turned back the way he had come and set off on foot.
The desert sun beat down hard, but Jack's hat kept off the worst of it. He walked over the packed-hard earth, a wolf at his side, with enough water to last him and a rifle slung across his back. Things were looking up, Jack decided.
He heard the groaning from quite some distance away. Jack looked down at the wolf padding alongside him. It looked up at him and wagged its tail.
O'Hanlon lay in a pool of blood, pinned beneath the carcass of his dead horse. When he saw Jack, he let out a bitter chuckle.
'Well Jack, if I'da known you'd gone and sold your soul to the man with hooves, I woulda' brought a preacher along,' he coughed, spitting out a huge glob of bloody phlegm. 'Ain't a natural creature, driven out of hell most like. I don't know whether you've been blessed or cursed Jacky, but your luck won't hold. One of these days you'll fetch up with a bullet in your weasel skull and wherever I am, I'll be laughing.'
Jack pulled out his revolver and cocked it. O'Hanlon laughed, 'now lad, don't be hasty. I'm a powerful man here abouts. How would you like a job? Good pay, good lodgings and as many wenches as you can service.'
Jack shot him. It was a mercy really, no man deserved to die of thirst, not even a lying, murdering, low-down wife-beater like O'Hanlon.
Lucky Jack walked on, and the wolf followed. The desert stretched out dead and empty in every direction. Behind them, it had claimed five new sets of bones, waiting to be picked clean by the circling buzzards and bleached white by the sun.