The Pure Heart    
© June 2003, as allowable

Ben stood in the doorway to his son’s bedroom and gazed upon the still form in the bed.  Horrifying scenes from the afternoon’s madness raced through his mind, depriving him of rest.  His first sight of the overturned wagon where it lay drunkenly tilted at the bottom of a deep ravine.  A glimpse of green jacket from under the fallen crates of supplies, with a hand clutching feebly at the rock-strewn ground.  A black-clad leg and boot that extended from under the frame of the wagon and didn’t move at all.

Then a rush of movement from his side.  Hoss sliding down the hill, calling to him to stay at the top, but to get his rope ready.  More of the green jacket came into view as the strongest of his boys lifted the crates from his brother’s body and threw them aside as if they were the blocks they’d played with as children.  A barrel of nails teetered and almost fell on Joe, but Hoss held it back with one hand while he grabbed the back of his brother’s jacket at the neck and hauled him out of danger.  The barrel rolled crazily down the stream-bed, but Hoss only had eyes for Joe who was sitting propped against a rock, bleary-eyed and holding his ribs, but alive.

They had so little time – the cloudburst up in the mountains could send a tidal wave of water down the gully any moment.

Hoss called to his father, but Ben was already prepared.  He tossed the loop of his rope around a nearby rock and threw the coils into the gulch.  Hoss tied it around Joe’s chest, up high where it wouldn’t squeeze his damaged side, and Ben slowly pulled his youngest upwards. 

Hoss moved to the front of the wagon and tried to slide Adam out, but even as Ben concentrated on carefully easing Joe over the lip of the road, he could see that his eldest was pinned, face-down.  Hoss tried lifting the wagon, but it was too heavy for even his strength.  Ben settled Joe on the ground and gently brushed the hair from his forehead.  Joe’s eyes blinked at him as awareness began to return.  Ben allowed himself a single caress, then told him firmly to stay put. 

Joe kneaded his forehead and nodded.  “Help Adam,” he whispered and closed his eyes.

Ben walked himself hand-over-hand down the rocky wall.  “Alive?” he’d gasped, still winded from hauling Joe and from the wild hammering of his heart.

“Dunno,” had been all Hoss said.  He was breathing hard, too, as he fought with the knots that kept the cargo tied to the wagon bed.  Ben pulled a knife from his pocket and, at a nod from his son, sliced through the first rope.  Hoss caught the first sack of grain easily and tossed it aside, but the second caught him by surprise.  It almost knocked him over, but he was braced and pushed it aside.  The third started to slide, but Ben caught a corner and held it just long enough for Hoss to catch it properly, just before Ben felt it would wrench his shoulder from its socket.  The fourth and fifth had to be hauled from the depths of the wagon, Hoss’s muscles bulging and straining with the effort.  Sweat poured down his face, and he swiped at it with one arm but never stopped.

“Try again,” Hoss puffed.  He dropped to a crouch and grabbed the bottom of the wagon, braced himself, then slowly tried to stand.  The wagon moved just a little, and they heard a soft, agonized groan from the darkness underneath.  “Pa,” Hoss gasped, and Ben knew what he wanted.

He found Adam’s other leg, got a good grip on both, and called out, “Now, son!”

The wagon creaked, dust drifted down through a shaft of sunlight, and Ben could taste coppery blood where he’d bitten his lip. He tried to slide Adam quickly but gently, in case he was badly injured, but knowing from Hoss’s strained keening that he didn’t have much time.  The ravine was narrow, though, and Adam’s body was long.  He pulled until he got his son’s legs and hips out from under the wagon, then grabbed him at the belt.

The wagon slipped, but with an agonized cry, Hoss grabbed it again, inches before it would have crushed his brother’s chest.  With one last heave, Ben dragged Adam the rest of the way out and cried, “I’ve got him!” 

The wagon fell with a crash, and dust rose in a cloud, thick and choking.  Hoss staggered around the wagon to them and dropped to his knees by his brother.  He helped Ben turn Adam carefully on his back, then checked his ribcage, arms and legs.  “Nothing broke I can see.”

Ben dabbed his kerchief at a bloody graze on Adam’s forehead.  “We need to get up above before the water gets here – get them both home.”

“Stay here and cover him,” Hoss said.

Ben nodded absently as he patted Adam’s cheeks, trying to encourage him to wake.  He leaned over his son to protect him as rocks and clumps of dirt fell on them from Hoss’s climb to the top of the ridge.  A second rope fell by his side, and he looked up.

“Tie one around you and one around Adam,” Hoss called, “then I’ll bring you up together.”

“But Hoss—” he started to protest, knowing their combined weight would be too much even for his great strength.  Then he saw Joe, wobbly and hunched, but standing at the heads of the two horses.  A faint rumble in the distance galvanized him.  He swiftly tied a foolproof but easily undone knot in the rope around Adam’s chest, then the same for himself.  He lifted Adam’s limp body into his embrace and faced the wall of the ravine, Adam’s head tucked against his shoulder, and prepared to walk his way uphill, keeping his son as far from the rocks as possible.

The rumbling in the distance grew into a roar.

Hoss had tied the ends of the ropes around the horses’ saddlehorns, but as Joe led the animals away, Hoss stood at the edge of the ravine and hauled as well, making sure Ben and Adam didn’t bump into more rocks than they had to.  Ben looked upstream to see a wall of muddy water crashing against the sides of the gully, ripping tree roots free and knocking chunks of dirt and huge rocks loose. 

“Hurry!” he yelled, trying to be heard above the roar. 

They crashed into an overhang, loosening a shower of dirt.  Ben tried to protect Adam’s head by tucking it against his chest.  He coughed the dirt from his lungs and kicked at the side of the gully, steering to the left where Hoss could bring them straight up.  The water grabbed at his ankles, tried to pull Adam from his grasp, but Hoss hauled on Adam’s rope and dragged him up the rest of the way by hand.  Ben clambered over the edge in time to hear Adam emit another soft groan as Hoss laid him on the ground.

Ben looked back into the gully.  The wagon had completely disappeared under the torrents of water.

Joe wobbled back with the horses and dropped, exhausted, next to his family.  “How’s he?” was all he could manage.

Adam’s eyelids twitched, and he slowly raised one hand to his head.

“Looks like everything’s gonna be fine,” Hoss said with a grin.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Ben entered the room and pulled a chair to the side of his son’s bed.  Adam was asleep in his room, in spite of a splitting headache.  He’d be fine after a day or two of rest.  Joe was asleep, too, though it had taken a solid dose of laudanum to ease the pain of his cracked ribs enough for him to settle.

And Hoss . . . he gazed on the beloved face before him, now clean of the dirt and grime and sweat of his labors.  Ben thought of his two sons who’d almost died this afternoon – could easily have, if not for the strength and determination of this one who lay before him in exhausted sleep. 

He pulled the covers up just a little higher on Hoss’s shoulders, ran the back of his hand gently along the side of his face, and whispered, “Thank you, son.” 

“My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure.”
Sir Alfred Tennyson, “Sir Galahad”


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