The man wearing the sheriff's badge passed another sandbag over his head. His arms ached from the strain of two, or was it three, days of the same routine. Reach to the man below, grab the heavy sodden bag, then pass it up to the man atop the dike. The calico-covered sacks leaked mud and sand, as well as water. Canvas had run out and burlap too. He itched from head to toe. Every ten or twenty bags, they would move along the man-made barrier to build it higher against the rising river.
"Never thought this would be in your law enforcement duties, huh, Janssen?"
The sheriff pressed his hands on his lower back, stretching the muscles the other way. It didn't help. "Nor you in your medical service, Doc."
Doc Eberly was the man above him. Two ranchers ran along the length of the dike below fetching more sandbags. "I may need doctoring myself. Mother nature don't seem to give mind to whom she inconveniences. The end is in sight. We'll meet the other team shortly. Then we can rest for a day or two."
Janssen grabbed another bag and passed it up. He hadn't experienced this kind of rain since the sudden downpours in west Texas that came with little warning but disappeared just as quickly . It had been raining in Dakota Territory for two solid weeks. The Souris River had peaked at twenty-four feet two days ago, giving the townspeople of Dismal Reach and the surrounding community a brief respite from fear of losing everything in the river's path. Lightning sparked far away to the north, giving small illumination to the ever-present black sky that had invaded the region for the last few weeks.
Doc yelled down, "We're done! Leave the rest, boys. We're three feet above the water now." He jumped down beside Janssen, supporting himself with a hand on the sheriff's shoulder. "I need a drink of your fine jailhouse whiskey, Sheriff."
Janssen scrambled to the base of the barrier. "I reckon we've all earned it. Will this hold? Do we need to come back tonight to check?"
Doc said, "I've been here a lot longer than you, Sheriff. If it doesn't hold, we're finished. There isn't another scrap of cloth in the territory to fill. This bend is the worst spot she can breach. My prescription is to retire to town and pray for less rain and more drink."
The pair bade their farewells to the work-party and mounted their horses. Janssen squinted into the distance. Coming out of the mist along the muddy trail leading to town was another man on horseback. Janssen swept off his drenched hat, shook it and pointed. "Rider coming, Doc."
"Don't recognize him or the horse. Anyone you know ride a grey?"
"The Matthews boy."
"That isn't Ben Matthews' son. He always rides like the devil's on his tail. This man's been in the saddle for days by his gait."
Janssen said, "You go on ahead, Doc. Help yourself to a drink in the jail. I'm going to meet our stranger." He reined his mount around and headed away.
The rider got closer but no more identifiable to the sheriff. The man was hunched over in the saddle, as if exhausted , or dying. Mount and rider were even with Janssen when he called, "Hold up."
The rider stirred and bolted straight. The horse stopped at his twitch of the rein. The stranger looked at his surroundings, no sign of recognition in his dark eyes. He focussed on the sheriff, neither friendship nor fear in the gaze. "What is this place?" His voice was rough, as if out of practice speaking.
The sheriff kept his eye on the man's sidearm. Of all the stranger's meagre goods visible to him, the six-gun alone had the look of care. If not a gunslinger, man used to plying his trade by his weapon. "Who's asking?"
The sheriff continued, "You've been on the trail a while by the looks of things. Saddlebags have a month's worth of sweat and grime. Your hat and longcoat ain't looking much cleaner."
"Name's Crawford. How much further to Dismal Reach?"
"At your pace, quarter of an hour. I'm the sheriff hereabouts. I'll ride with you."
The man lowered his head and rode in silence beside Janssen until they reached the town. In front of the jail, the man swung down from the saddle. He led his horse to the railing and looped the rein so the grey could drink from the trough. He removed his hat, bent over and dipped his face into the water as well. He stood up, clearer-eyed. "It has been a while. Name's Crawford."
"So you said. Welcome to Dismal Reach. If that rain came with you, I'd say you better keep riding so there'll still be a town tomorrow."
The man removed the saddle and rested it on the railing. "I follow the storm, not the other way 'round. I'm waiting to meet some men."
The sheriff pulled Crawford's rifle from the saddle scabbard. "Nice rifle." Janssen hefted it in his hand. "Sharps. Been on both sides of these ." He balanced it in the crook of his arm. "These men, they have business in Dismal too?"
"No. We meet, then ride north."
"The new province? Manitoba?"
"However far it takes."
The sheriff held out his hand. "I will hold your guns until you're ready to leave. You can pass that information to your friends. Folks around here are peaceable and have endured enough natural troubles of late. We don't need gunfighters bringing more."
Crawford leaned down to untie his holster lace, then undid the gunbelt and passed it to the sheriff. "Somewhere I can board my horse?"
Janssen pointed with the impounded rifle further down the main street. "Sawchuk's stable. Around the corner. Hotel, such as it is, other side of the street."
"Much obliged. I reckon I'll be sleeping in the stable. Don't know how long I'll be waiting, and I'm low on funds."
"Just be sure you pay the stable up front, and we'll get along fine. If you're friends haven't shown in a week, I'd recommend you meet them somewhere else."
"Understood, Sheriff. They are not friends. In fact, I've never met them. But I'll know them when I see them."
"As will I."
Crawford undid the reins and hoisted the saddle onto his shoulder for the walk to the stable.
Doc Eberly stepped down beside Sheriff Janssen. "Tight-lipped fellow. Did you notice his eyes? Black as the clouds from the north."
A sudden gust of wind blew a chill down the sheriff's back. He said, "What the hell does that mean? Don't you have doctoring to do? With all the sick people in town, you should have better things to do than try to spook me."
Doc laughed, "You're right. I'm not trying to spook you. But ask yourself one thing while you're locking up his guns."
"Why would anyone come here, given all the troubles we've been through?"
"I did, Doc."
"You came before the drought. Before the diseases." Doc tilted his head back a notch, eyes to the clouds above. "Before the never-ending rain. Why would he come now?"
Sheriff Janssen hefted the rifle and gunbelt. "I'd rather not think about it."
Two days later, Janssen sat on his horse at the top of a small hill above the river bend he had helped sandbag. The water lapped at his mount's hooves. Here and there, he could see torn, empty bags floating with the current. Lazily, as if to snub its nose at man's puny efforts to corral nature, the river coursed across fields, paths and pasture. The Robinson spread was under, save for the ranch house chimney and the barn roof poking out of the brackish lake that now engulfed what the Robinsons had worked half a decade to build. What he and the others had struggled tirelessly to save.
Some peacemaker you turned out to be, he chided himself. How could one man, or for that matter, a handful of men, make a difference? The descent into chaos was the natural law, not his law to enforce or overwhelm. He guided his horse around a fresh pond and started for town.
Another rider was ahead of him on the trail. Janssen urged his horse forward to catch up. It appeared to be another stranger. Ten feet away, Janssen slowed and studied him from behind, comparing him to the gunslinger. This one sat straight in his undersized saddle. It was a small horse and the man himself couldn't have been much over five feet tall. The sheriff nudged his horse to match speed with the rider. As he inched closer he noticed a bundle bouncing in front of the stranger.
Janssen called, "Howdy. Heading for Dismal?"
The man turned but did not slow his pace. He pointed in the distance to the outline of the town's buildings against the dark skies. The rain began to spit and the pair urged more speed from their mounts. As they cantered along the main street, the rain increased in intensity. Janssen pointed to the stable. "You'll find someone waiting for you there."
The rider stroked the water from his goatee and nodded. "Gracias."
Janssen checked the telegraph office but no answer to his queries about Crawford had yet come. The operator said lines were down a hundred miles to the west and to check back later.
Doc was waiting in the jail when he entered. "How's the bridge?"
"Gone. We'll be flooded out in a week if the river keeps rising and this damn rain doesn't let up."
Doc nodded and said, "The rain isn't fresh. You can smell the rotten wheat. People sick, crops infested with rust, water rising. I'm beginning to get discouraged."
"Wait'll you hear the latest. Our cowboy has a second."
Janssen pulled off his coat and hung it through the cell bars. "No, I don't think so. A little guy. Black eyes, black hair. Said 'gracias' when I pointed him to Crawford's lair."
"Yup. Or Spanish. Had the look of a fighter but not from around here. More like a warrior. Trained soldier. Everything about him shouted elite army. When I fought Santana's men in the 'forties, they were undisciplined, wild skirmish fighters. This one's lean, a gambler. Prepared to die. Wouldn't want to play poker against him, I know he'd risk more than me ."
"You been out in the wet too long, it's softening your brain, Sheriff."
Janssen laughed. "Mebbe. Hard not to think dark thoughts when Dismal is so dismal. Want to see him?"
Doc stood and donned his coat and hat. "No. I should be starting my afternoon rounds."
Janssen put on a lighter coat and shook his hat under the eave. "Tell your patients to keep a look out for any more strangers. I have a feeling our popularity isn't over yet."
Janssen stopped again at the telegraph office before heading to the stable.
Crawford and the Spaniard were sitting cross-legged on the floor. Crawford was oiling his rifle scabbard. The Spaniard was polishing a steel helmet and breastplate. Neither spoke.
Janssen cleared his throat and handed the empty gunbelt to Crawford. "Thought you might like to keep it oiled in this climate. Not much harm you can do without its pistol."
Crawford stood up and reached for it. "Thanks Sheriff. I do feel uneasy without it."
Janssen indicated the other man diligently rubbing his armour. "That's quite a get-up. I'll need that pistol—and that sword has a nasty look."
Crawford knelt and whispered to his companion. The Spaniard looked at the sheriff, shrugged and passed them both.
Janssen examined the oddly shaped pistol. "What comes out of this barrel? Apples? It looks like a blunderpuss."
Crawford corrected. "It's a blunderbuss. Used by an expert, cut you in two. Or at least slow you down enough so his sword can."
Janssen set the pair of weapons behind him and pulled out a piece of paper. "I got this telegram from Three Forks. Says a man named Crawford came through there two months ago. 'Bout the time our own troubles began."
Crawford sat back down and began examining his holster.
Janssen continued, "Also says he was a bit of hero. Helped a rancher and his family fight off a gang of rustlers. You know anything about that?"
"Not that uncommon a name, Sheriff."
"Mebbe so. Also says this Crawford died in the gun battle. How does that explain you? Here." He looked around the barn, listening to the noise of a hundred leaks.
"Must have been some other Crawford."
"You got any brothers?"
"No. Had a pa once. But he lit out when I was twelve. Can't imagine him being a hero but I guess people can change."
"The description fits your age, not your pa's, Crawford. Or whatever your name is. I think you could be one of them rustlers that just decided to steal a man's name instead of his livestock . What do you think?"
Crawford looked up. "You have my guns, Sheriff. I haven't caused you any trouble, and we will be on our way soon." A loud crack of thunder shook more water loose from the roof of the stable. The Spaniard whispered, "Madre de Dios!" and crossed himself.
Crawford said, "Seems to me you got enough on your hands already."
"That I do. I've fought in two wars and I came to this territory to start again. Funny thing to consider at my age, but that's the way it is. I don't want another battle. You're connected with the troubles here, and I aim to see you leave and take them with you." He picked up the Spaniard's weapons. "Two days."
"I'm waiting for two more men, Sheriff. Then we'll leave."
"Then you better hope they show in the next forty-eight hours."
The Mathews spread was a wretched jumble of falling-over fences, outbuildings missing one or more walls, and mud. The stench of burned cattle lingered in the air even though he knew it had been a week since Ben had put the torch to his herd. Janssen could hear an unhealthy cough coming from the pitiable house. He saw the pale face of the boy in the shadowed doorway. The boy coughed again, spittle dripping down the front of his shirt.
Ben Mathews called, "Get back to bed, boy. Doc'll be in directly. Sheriff, make sure my boy don't see the rest of this , will you?"
Janssen put a hand on Ben's shoulder and nodded. He stepped onto the porch and shooed the boy inside. He turned to watch Ben and Doc stand over the small figure in what used to be the corral. Doc lit his torch and poured kerosene from a jug. Ben took the torch from Doc's hand and motioned him away. Janssen understood. It was Ben's missus and he had to be the one. The flames jumped up. Acrid black smoke billowed from the makeshift pyre.
Ben said, "It ain't a normal disease. Two days ago, she was fine, healthy. Ask the boy; he'll tell you. This blight is unholy. You should be asking those strangers about it. They brought this on, not nature."
Janssen walked close to the death pyre. The smell was bad, an evil odour. He had touched the firebrand too many times in a fortnight. Cattle, horses, now an innocent woman. Like the consuming fire, the disease didn't discriminate. It destroyed all.
"No, no!" The boy ran from the house and collapsed at Janssen's feet. He easily picked the boy up in one arm. The lad was light and had little strength to put behind his protests.
Ben glared at Janssen as he carried the boy to him. "You better take your real job more seriously, Sheriff."
"My job is to keep the peace, Ben. Keep the peace for everyone, so we're all safer."
The boy coughed again. Doc Eberly took the lad and carried him inside. Janssen said, "You best see to your boy, Ben. And have Doc take a look at you. You don't look well."
Ben looked up at him, tears streaming down his cheeks. "It's them outsiders. You’re an outsider too. Sticking together."
"That's not true, Ben. I'm trying hard to be one of you. But those two travellers have nothing to do with this." In his heart, he wasn’t so sure, but he'd always believed in giving a man the benefit of the doubt. He thought about these strange men all the way back to Dismal.
"I tell you, Doc, Crawford I can understand, even if he isn't who he says. That Spaniard is a different varmint."
"He's not from around here; that's certain." Doc struck a match and lit his pipe.
Janssen leaned forward and spoke softly. "Here? He's not from this time or I'm a crow. I fought the Californios under General Kearny and this one is a league apart."
"Don't look now, Sheriff, but I believe another is coming down the street."
Janssen followed Doc's stare. A Negro in patchwork Union garb led his horse toward them.
The stranger spoke, "I'm looking for three men, sirs."
Janssen nodded and was about to point then said, "Follow me. Your horse is about done. How long you been a-riding? I didn't know the Buffalo Soldiers were near."
The black man shook his head, "I'm not in the cavalry, sir. Name's Jebediah."
Janssen looked at the man's uniform again. Five years since the end of the Civil War had worn it through. "You wouldn't be a deserter, would you son?"
"No sir, I served to the end."
"You're expected." Janssen showed him the door to the stable.
He stood outside, oblivious to the spitting rain. "A gunslinger, an ex-slave Union trooper and some kind of Conquistador. I'm blowed if I know what they're up to, or if they do." Lightning cracked and Janssen turned up his collar to the wind. "Whatever they're doing here, it ain't good."
Janssen sat behind his desk, studying the committee confronting him. Doc Eberly stood to one side.
Janssen broke the silence. "You fellows finished saving the town?"
Ben Mathews said, "You know why we're here, Sheriff. Those strangers holed up in Nick Sawchuk's stable."
Janssen looked at the grizzled immigrant of even more battles than he. "They paying you, Nick?"
He held up a coin. "Gold."
Ben said, "It isn't a matter of payment, Sheriff, it's a matter of survival. You've only been here a couple of years. You don't know what the land means to people who devote their lives to it."
Janssen stood. "I didn't when I came, Ben. I do now. I came here because I was tired of being one man fighting other men's battles. One man, one sheriff can make a difference in a place like this, ensure Dismal Reach is a decent, safe place to live. I've done that. For you as well as me."
"We're not arguing about you sheriff but it's your duty to run those strangers out of Dismal. They've brought bad luck."
Janssen slammed his hand on the desk. "You're spooked, all of you. Superstition's ruling your minds. Our luck turned black long before they showed up."
Ben moved close to Janssen. "Run them, Sheriff. Run them—or we will."
Janssen looked to Doc Eberly for support. The Doc shook his head.
"Give me two days, Ben. They'll leave on their own, I'm certain."
The spokesman was not bowed. "Tonight, Sheriff."
The citizens turned and left as one.
"Doc, you're one of them. Can't buy me more time?"
Doc sagged into a chair. "Ben lost his son to the fever this morning. I couldn't save him. No more than I can your compadres down the street. You want me to go with you?"
Janssen said, "No, I'll handle it. It's my job. Seems as likely the troubles more came with me as them."
"Nonsense. Don't be discouraged. The sun will shine again for all of us."
Sheriff Jannsen pushed the stable door open. The dank smell of wet straw and horse waste formed a second barrier separating those within from his world. The three wayfarers sat together, Crawford rubbing oil into his saddle, the Spaniard polishing the bronze helmet and the Negro kneeling in prayer.
The Spaniard was the first to notice the intruder. "¿Que?"
Janssen looked at Crawford. "This rain chased away locusts. One threat replaces another. Crops that withstood insects and rust lie rotten in mud. Animals that didn't succumb to disease or thirst drowned."
Crawford said, "Next year will mean a clean start then."
"If there is a next year." Sheriff Janssen stood between the three. "The townspeople are convinced you three are connected to their misfortunes. Next year is a distant hope. We'll be lucky to have a town at all. And you'll be lucky to leave alive. Unless..."
The Spaniard leaped to his feet, reaching for the sword that was not there. Crawford lay down his leathers and stood, a hand on the Conquistador's shoulder. He settled him back down. "Unless we leave? We can't do that Sheriff. Not without our fourth man."
Janssen looked up at the crumbling rafters and leaking roof. A town old before its time. He would not let it become another battleground. He couldn't fault Ben for wanting a future. Nor fight him for trying to change the present.
"Meet me in twenty minutes on the north road. The townspeople won't chance that direction. There's an evil storm front brewing. Tornadoes maybe. I'll bring your weapons."
"What about the fourth man of our group?" Crawford asked.
"You're looking at him."
"I understand, Sheriff. We'll be there."
To the minute, the three arrived under cover of the looming storm. Lightning danced like fiery curtains across the northern horizon. Thunder shook the ground in waves.
Janssen passed guns and swords to each man in turn. The change in each was visible as they secured their weapons with familiarity and relief.
Janssen pointed skyward to the northeast. "Funnel cloud. I may be sheriff of a pile of rubble by this time tomorrow."
Jebediah spoke. "Do not despair. God is on our side."
Crawford loaded his rifle and spurred his horse forward at a walk.
Janssen followed, in spite of his fear. He spotted the rider. Coming hard. "What in the hell? Look."
They observed the mounted figure riding ahead of the cloudbank. Furs streamed out behind. He was close enough now for the sheriff to make out features. "A Sioux?"
Crawford yelled above the thunder. "Yup. In war regalia. Watch him ride. Born to it. He can shoot an arrow faster than you can draw your gun and not miss a beat in his gallop."
The rider pulled up and pointed his spear the way he had come. He nodded to the three and they nodded in return.
Crawford turned to Janssen. "Your obligation is released Sheriff. Return to your town and pray."
The four moved their horses to a trot.
Janssen swung his mount around and squinted at his adopted home. As a career soldier, he'd had no roots, only fleeting camaraderie. Most of the time, boredom, fear and poverty. Dismal had changed that all for him. He wheeled back and Janssen spurred forward. He rode up beside Crawford.
The gunfighter said, "This isn't your battle, Sheriff. We ride to meet our counterparts." He motioned far ahead in their path.
Janssen made out four other riders in the distance and felt the thunder roll become regular. Like hoof beats. "Those are no mortal horses."
"Nor mortal riders," Crawford answered. "Retreat while you can."
Janssen shook his head and unlimbered his own rifle. "I'm prayed out. I can't cure the sick, I can't plant crops and I can't pile sandbags forever. I reckon you boys can use a fifth man, tilt the odds a piece in our favour."
"See their horses; white, black, pale brown ..."
"...and red. I see but I don't want to believe."
Jebediah crossed himself, as did the Conquistador.
Crawford said, "The Christians believe. It's their legend after all. Now ride, fellows, we meet the enemy once again."
Janssen pulled his hat tighter and urged his horse forward as the five rode to face the apocalypse.
This story originally appeared in On Spec #90.