The water hit like a crashing fist. Sophie heard her own cry of fear as she was swept sideways. Her arms wrenched nearly from their sockets as the rope tightened. Her body, literally tied to the man, lifted with the angry waters. The flood caught them as if it were a greedy child not wanting to let go of its toy. Sophie had a second to despair of Hector’s strength and prayed Beth wouldn’t be swept away with the mule. Flood water filled her mouth. The life her precious babies had to face without her was the image she’d die with.

Then they were up. They landed on the top of the creek bank like a couple of battle-weary trout. Sophie was too battered to move. She lay there, choking on muddy water as the world began to right itself. She tried to catch her breath and was having precious little luck, when Mandy got to her side, followed by Beth. Only when they rolled her off the man did she realize she’d been stretched out fully on top of him.

“Ma! Are you all right?” Mandy’s anxious voice reached into her sluggish mind.

Her girls. She felt the scrambling fingers on the ropes that bound her to this stranger, and she heard their fear. She had to be strong for them. She forced the panic from her water-logged head. “Yes, I’m fine. Just got a good soaking. Let’s see if our friend here survived it.”

Sophie almost staggered when she got to her knees, but she didn’t. The girls were watching. She turned her attention to the man and pressed her hand firmly against his chest. Beneath her palm was a strong heartbeat, even though, after his one spell of coughing, the man hadn’t stirred again. She felt his chest rise and fall with a steady breath.

Sophie heaved a heartfelt sigh of relief. “He’s still alive.”

The spitting rain grew steadier, and Sophie wondered what a chest full of dirty water did to a man. A deep chill now might well be the last straw. With a renewed surge of strength, Sophie decided that, after all she’d been through, this man could just think twice before he up and died on her. Thinking aloud, she said, “There’s no way we can carry him to the house, and we’re not strong enough to get him up on Hector’s back.”

“If Hector goes slow, maybe we can just drag him,” Mandy suggested. “Reckon it’ll kill him, though.”

Elizabeth said lightly from where she knelt beside her mother, “I don’t know how he could get much worse. He appears to be mostly kilt already.”

Sophie prayed in her heart, as she had been nonstop since she’d heard the first hoofbeats. But no better suggestions were forthcoming from the Almighty.

“Okay, we drag him. Take it real slow, Beth. Stay by his side, Mandy and . . . and . . . .” Sophie was out of ideas. A sudden gust of wind and a prolonged glare of lightning, with thunder rumbling constantly now, prodded her. “Let’s get on with it then.”

They hauled him the same way they hauled logs to split for their fire. Hector pulled the unconscious man right up to the front door. When Elizabeth stopped Hector, Mandy asked, with the practicality her life had forced onto her, “Reckon Hector can drag him into the house?”

The house was small—one room, with a loft, no back door, and two front steps that passed for a stoop. Sophie tried to envision the big mule climbing the stairs, ducking through the narrow door, and then turning around in the cramped space. Hector was large and not given to cooperation at the best of times, even with Beth’s gentle urging.

“How about we put him in the barn,” Mandy suggested.

Barn was a highfalutin word for the Edwards’s one and only outbuilding. The building remained standing more out of pure ornery stubbornness than sturdy construction. It was a three-sided shed that stood upright, thanks to the bramble that had wound itself around every inch of the building and practically reclaimed it as part of the vast thicket that hid the Edwards’s home. Hector seemed inclined to head for it, though he usually disdained to go under the rickety roof.