Summary: In a fight against Mother Nature’s, they just wanted to go home.
Word Count: 2558
The water lapped against the canvas bags as the Truckee River determinedly tried to find an outlet for the melting snow and persistent rain which was swelling it to almost twice its normal size. A dozen men piled sacks along the side of the rushing water, equally determined to prevent the river from growing wide enough to send a torrent of water over the crest of the mountain and into the valley below.
“I’m getting tired of this, Hoss,” Joe Cartwright complained to his brother as he hauled another sand-filled bag toward the barrier. “It’s rained for ten straight days and it doesn’t look like it’s going to stop any time soon. We’ve been working on this dam for almost three days. I’m tired of being wet, I’m tired of eating beans and bacon, and I’m tired of filling and hauling sacks.”
Turning from his perch on a rock next to the wall of canvas bags, Hoss Cartwright scowled at his younger brother. “I’m as tired and wet as you are, Joe,” replied Hoss unsympathetically. “But we’re all going to be in a heap of trouble if this barrier don’t hold. If the river breaks through, the Ponderosa and everything else at the bottom of this mountain is going to be under ten feet of water and mud. Now hand that sack up to me.”
“You’re right,” Joe acknowledge grudgingly as he lifted the canvas bag and placed it in his brother’s outstretched arms. He watched Hoss position the sack on the top of the man-made wall, then smiled a bit and added, “I’m just grousing because I think I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be warm and dry.”
Nodding a bit, Hoss grinned down at Joe. “I know what you mean. When this is all over, I’m going to plop myself down next to that big fireplace at home and not move for a week. It’s going to take at least that long for me to dry out.”
“You mean you won’t even come to the table for one of Hop Sing’s hot dinners?” teased Joe.
“Well, I’m kinda of hoping that ol’ Hop Sing will take pity on me and bring me my dinner,” Hoss admitted. “Now go get me another sack.”
“Right,” said Joe with a sigh as he tugged at first the left and then the right glove which covered his hands. He pulled his sodden hat down a bit tighter on his head and adjusted the oil-skin poncho on his shoulders. The poncho, hat and gloves offered protection from the worst of the rain, but the clothing couldn’t prevent the dampness from seeping into what Joe felt was every part of his tired body.
With a look of determination on his face, Joe took a step toward the area where five men were digging into the ground and filling sacks with the sandy soil. He stopped, however, when he heard his name being called from the left. Turning, Joe watched as his father and oldest brother walked past the wall of sacks, heading in his direction.
“Joe, how are you doing?” Ben Cartwright asked his youngest son.
“I’m wet, and I’m tired and I’m sick of eating beans,” answered Joe, beginning his list of complaints once more.
“I think Pa was asking how your portion of the dam is coming,” Adam Cartwright said, giving his brother a wry smile.
“Oh, um, yeah,” replied Joe, looking a bit embarrassed. “Well, we’re in good shape here.”
“We sure are, Pa,” added Hoss as he jumped down from the rock on which he had been standing. “That ol’ river ain’t going to break through here. We got it plugged tight as a drum.”
Nodding in agreement, Ben nevertheless walked over to man-made barrier and checked the pile of canvas bags. After assuring himself the wall was as solid as Hoss had boasted, Ben turned back to sons. “Good job, boys,” he complimented Joe and Hoss. “I agree that will hold back the water for quite awhile.”
“Does that mean we’re done and can go home?” Joe asked eagerly.
“Not unless you can make it stop raining,” Adam answered for his father. “That wall of sacks may not let the river through, but it won’t stop the water from going over the top of it.”
“You don’t really think the river will go that high, do you, Adam?” said Hoss in alarm. “I mean, it can’t rain much longer, can it?
“If you had asked me that a week ago, I would have said no,” replied Adam. “But now, well, I just don’t know. We have to be ready for anything.”
“I’ve heard of a time when it rained for forty days and forty nights,” added Ben with a small smile.
“Oh great,” grumbled Joe. “Next he’ll have us building an ark.”
“Why don’t you boys head up stream and give Charlie Parsons a hand,” suggested Ben, clapping Joe lightly on the back. “He was having trouble getting his part of the barrier up.”
“Right, Pa,” Hoss agreed. He turned to Joe. “C’mon, little brother. We can start collecting animals two by two along the way.”
When Hoss and Joe arrived at the section of the dam being built by two of the Ponderosa ranch hands, they were appalled by the one-sided structure they saw. The canvas bags were placed on top of each other almost eight feet high and three feet deep on one side, but only two bags were on the ground next to the tall pile of sacks. A large gap loomed between half-built barrier and a large boulder which separated the section from the rest of the dam that was being built.
“Charlie, whoever taught you to build a dam?” Hoss asked the ranch hand in an astonished voice.
“Nobody,” answered Charlie defensively. “I’m a wrangler, not a mud slinger. Adam said to pile the bags on top of each other and that’s what I’m doing.”
“I told him we was doing it all wrong,” chimed in Bill, the other Ponderosa hand. “But he wouldn’t listen to me.”
“It didn’t occur to either of you geniuses that the water could run through the break next to the boulder while you were building this tower on the right?” added Joe, shaking his head.
“Well, we figured we’d get everything done on one side, and then start on the other,” explained Charlie. “I mean, the river ain’t up here yet so we got lots of time.”
“Charlie, that river could rise and get up here in ten minutes,” replied Hoss in an exasperated tone. “Ain’t you never heard of flash floods?”
“Guess I didn’t think of that,” Charlie mumbled, hanging his head.
“Let’s not waste time pointing fingers,” declared Joe. “Hoss, I’m going to climb up to the top of this thing and start throwing down bags. You and Charlie start stacking them the right way. Bill, start filling up some more sacks. We’re going to need a lot more than we have here.”
As the four men hurried to their tasks, they heard a distant rumble. None of them paid any attention to the noise; they all thought it was thunder. They didn’t know that the rain had caused the saturated dirt of a tall hill upstream to slip and fall into the raging river below. The mudslide blocked the right side of the river, causing the water to surge to the left and form a large wave.
“Here comes another one, Hoss” shouted Joe from atop the tall stack of canvas bags. He threw one of the sacks to the ground and watched as his brother picked it up to move it to the small wall of bags that was now being formed in the open space. Joe stopped for a moment to rest his aching arms before shifting another of the sacks. The rain had soaked the bags, making them heavy and hard to handle.
Suddenly, Joe heard a strange noise – not exactly a rumble, but a sound loud enough to alert him that something was happening. Frowning, Joe turned and looked upstream. His eyes opened wide in surprise and fear as he saw the large wave of water rushing toward him.
“Hoss! Flash flood!” yelled Joe.
“Joe! Get down from there!” screamed Hoss. He turned quickly and yelled at Charlie. “Warn the others!” Charlie began to run upstream, followed closely by Bill; both men were shouting a warning as they ran.
Wanting to be behind the barrier when the water hit, Joe started scrambling toward the shore-side of the tower of bags. He had just started his descent when the wave of water washed over him.
The force of the surge swept Joe away from the tall man-made structure and toward the ground. But before he reached the solid earth, the wave caught him and pulled him away from the shore. Joe tumbled about in the water like a piece of flotsam, helpless and unable to tell up from down. He tried to keep his mouth closed, but he had already swallowed some water. Joe felt as if his lungs were going to burst as he tried desperately not to cough. The poncho ballooned up and over his head, then floated away in the swirling water.
The wave crashed against the large boulder near the half-built dam, forcing the water to flow back onto itself. With nowhere else to go, the surge turned to the open space between the boulder and the tall pile of sacks. Finding an outlet, the water poured over the small row of bags, thinning itself out in the process.
Joe’s head popped to the surface as the water flowed toward the land. He coughed hard twice and then gulped a lungful of air. Joe clawed desperately for something to hang on to, but the water was too deep for him to reach the bags underneath him. He also was too far away to grab at the tall pile of sacks.
“Help! Hoss!” Joe cried out in terror. He could feel the current of the river pulling him away from the land and back toward the larger part of the waterway. Joe knew he would drown if he ended up in the main flow of the river; his sodden clothes would pull him underwater in minutes. “Help!” Joe shouted as his arms flailed about.
Suddenly, Joe felt his left arm being grabbed and held in a vise-like grip. He wasn’t sure how it happened, but he knew Hoss had somehow managed to fight his way through the flood and catch his arm.
As the water receded from the land, a tug of war began, with Joe as the prize. The current pulled Joe back toward the river channel, while Hoss held tightly on to Joe’s arm.
“Don’t let go!” yelled Joe, the fear evident in his voice. He could see his brother standing in chest-deep water, bracing himself against the small wall of canvas bags. “Hang on, Hoss!” Joe screamed.
For several minutes, the tug of war continued. Joe felt as if his arm was being ripped out of his shoulder as the current pulled him back while Hoss grimly kept his big hands wrapped tightly around Joe’s arm. Water splashed into Joe’s face and mouth, causing him to cough and gasp for air. Joe tried to bring his right arm forward so he could grasp Hoss’ arm with it, but the current kept forcing it back. His legs were straight out behind him as the water continued to try to drag Joe away. Joe struggled to kick his feet, hoping to propel his body forward, but his water-filled boots made his legs feel as if they were tied to lead weights.
As if conceding defeat, the surge finally began to recede. Almost as quickly as it had come, the water level dropped. The current lost its strong pull as the remnants of the wave splashed aimlessly against the boulder and the canvas sacks. Like a cork being popped from a bottle, Joe suddenly shot forward. His body crashed into Hoss with enough force to knock the big man to the ground.
Hoss and Joe laid on their backs in a shallow pool of water for several minutes; both were gasping for air and unable to move. Finally, Hoss pulled himself up to a sitting position, and helped Joe do the same.
“Are you all right, Joe?” asked Hoss, his voice full of concern.
“I don’t know,” Joe answered, still panting heavily. He moved his left arm a bit, and winced in pain. “I think my shoulder is dislocated.” Joe looked Hoss straight in the eyes. “Thanks,” was all he said but the word carried a heartfelt sentiment.
“I didn’t do nothing but grab you and hang on,” replied Hoss, shrugging a bit.
“You saved my life,” insisted Joe. He shook his head slowly. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared. I thought sure I was going to drown.”
“Well, I was scared too,” Hoss admitted. “I was afraid my hand would slip and you’d get away from me. I was scared my last look at you would be as you floated down river.”
The sound of running feet made both Hoss and Joe turn their heads to look. Ben and Adam were leading a large group of men toward them.
“Hoss! Joe! Are you all right?” called Ben as he approached his youngest sons.
“Joe here has a dislocated shoulder, and we’re both soaked to the skin, but I reckon we’re all right,” Hoss told his father calmly. “Everybody else come through it all right?”
“Yes,” answered Ben in a distracted voice as his eyes raked his sons, checking for injuries. “Charlie and Bill were able to warn us in time; we got everyone back from the water.”
“I think you two got the worst of it,” added Adam. His eyes narrowed a bit as they also searched his brothers for signs of damage. Convinced Hoss and Joe were relatively unharmed, Adam grinned at his water-soaked brothers. “Next time, let us know when you two decide to go for a swim,” he said in a teasing voice.
“Charlie, Bill, go get some blankets,” Ben ordered. “Sam, get up to the camp and make sure there’s a fire going and some coffee brewing.” As the three men hurried off, Ben turned to Adam. “We’re going to have to get these two home. Get some horses saddled.”
“Hey, Joe,” said Hoss, his face brightening. “Guess we’re going to get that warm place by the fire sooner than we thought.”
“Yeah,” agreed Joe as he rubbed his sore shoulder. “But didn’t you notice? It’s stopped raining.”
“So it has,” acknowledged Adam, looking up at the clearing sky. “It looks like the storm has finally passed. The river will stop rising. I doubt if it will even get to the barrier.”
“You mean, we did all of this for nothing?” exclaimed Hoss in dismay.
“Not for nothing, Hoss,” declared Joe. He looked at his brother who had saved his life, and the gratitude shone in his eyes. “I’m never going to forget this day.”