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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Flood

By Mary Greenway McClelland (1853–1895)

[Born in Norwood, Nelson Co., Va., 1853. Died there, 1895. Oblivion. An Episode. 1885.]

“LIKE a thief in the night.” The simile is hackneyed, but it will serve, for so the water came. The overplus of spring, rivulet, and brook, with the accumulated wash of the mountain-sides, had swelled the river to a mighty torrent which poured itself through the valley in a perfect flood. From hillside to hillside the water went with a current in the middle like a mill-race. The railroad-bridge was still standing, but the water had swept around both ends, isolating it like a scrap of wire fence in the middle of a prairie. Against it, on the upper side, a huge hammock had formed, and it was only a question of moments, and a few more logs and trees, ere the whole structure must give way; so impotent is iron and cunning handiwork against the power of such agents of destruction as weight and water.

All the villagers, men, women, children, and dogs, were abroad upon the hillside, wondering, gazing, commenting, and questioning. The railway-track was seven feet under water, and the river was still rising.

“Thar goes Rideout’s sto’,” remarked Knapp the carpenter, “startin’ out down country on er v’yage o’ diskivery. Look, how well she holds together; every log an’ plank in place as solid as the day I j’ined ’em.” The speaker paused to regard his handiwork with pride. “Thar she swings out into the current—bound for Tennessee. I call that a good squar lead.”

“Ther depot’s ’bout followin’ suit,” observed Thrasher, fishing in his pocket for a twist of home-made tobacco, and helping himself to a liberal “chaw.”

The depot building moved slightly, lifted, turned slowly with a waltzing motion, and drifted off down-stream. Telegraph-posts followed, washed up and falling like trees with a sullen splash. A stack or two of rough food, straw and fodder, came sailing by, bowing and bending with the motion of the water. Then more logs and a great pile of drift. And the river was still rising.

John, Dick, and Ralph Woody went out to the extreme end of a knoll of ground that was now a peninsula, and stood looking down on the flood with vivid interest. A hammock of fence-rails, planks, and debris, carried by the current around the end of the bridge, drifted past the spot where they stood; there was a dead tree lying across it, with three or four chickens perched among its branches; a drowned hog was caught between two of the planks. The men looked at each other, but said nothing. More trash, and the body of a dead horse; then something square and large like a great dark box, that turned over and over as it floated down; then another dead horse. Dick glanced round with a great fear in his eyes. “The stage!” he said hoarsely. “Thet fust horse was Carter’s dun mare, an’ the other”——

“Was mine,” finished John, with a break in his voice,—“I know. And Charlie?”

“They’ll be out on the hillside safe enough. Carter ain’t one to be took onawar’ an’ lose his head. He knows the ways of water good es any man upon the mountain. Old man Carter knows what to do in er freshet. Depen’ upon it he had all ther folks out on ther hillside long afore the wust come. The stable an’ lot is a sight nigher the river than the house.” Woody spoke reassuringly, but his heart was small and faint within him.

The sun, clear and bright, rose above the crests of the eastern mountains, and sent long level rays like golden fingers across the tree-tops and the valley, touching the breast of the raging flood and the anxious brows of the pallid groups. And the river rose and rose, inch by inch, foot by foot; and the people waited breathless.

A sound from up by the bridge—a crashing and tearing and rending, high above the steady monotonous roar of the water. The iron-work was giving way, was snapping like glass before the assault of the terrible battering-ram the flood was hurling against it. A house, driven end foremost against the pile of logs and débris already collected; a house with human beings—men, women, little children—on the roof, crouching, clinging in mortal terror to the very shingles, the wild wail of whose agony and fear rose high above the fury of the flood, as the house struck. The bridge parted; the hammock, freed at last, broke and floated down stream in fragments; the house remained for a moment stationary, hung against the masonry of the middle pier. God! for power to save them! for strength to hold back the death-torrent! The house bent with the force of the current, recovered itself, bent again. Dick thrust himself in front of John, and held him forcibly back behind his broad shoulder: he should not see it. The flooring of the bridge gave way, the house swung round with a sudden lurch as it was caught by the unobstructed might of the torrent; one end caught against the pier held it still, it careened to one side more and more, the water was too strong, and it capsized slowly.

A wail broke from the helpless spectators. Women cast their aprons over their faces and sobbed aloud, and men wrung their hard hands together and groaned.

Is there no end to tragedy? Something else comes floating down the death-stream, past the ruined bridge, in the wake of the house which had proved a sepulchre. A boat; one of the kind peculiar to the rivers of the South—flat-bottomed, almost square at stem and stern, but raked so as to ride the water like a duck. In it stood a boy, waving his hands to them entreatingly, calling aloud in a voice inaudible to them, lost in the roar of the flood. As it neared they saw something white lying in the bottom of the boat, huddled in a heap at the boy’s feet.

“It’s Charlie!” muttered John, hoarsely, and began to tear off his coat, forgetful of his fifty years and his eighteen-stone weight.

Dick caught him by the arm. “Hold on, John!” he cried, “you can’t do it, man; you’ll be drowned afore you’ve gone fifty yards. Hand along thet rope, Thrasher; and stand by, fellows, to haul in when I give ther sign. I’m goin’.”

And in less than a moment he was stripped to the trousers, had a rope fastened securely under his shoulders, and a knife between his teeth to cut it if it should foul, and was up to his neck in the turbid flood.

Woody, with his legs well apart and his back braced against a tree, paid out the rope steadily, while Thrasher and John stood by watchfully, ready to render aid at a second’s notice. The rest of the villagers, scenting the new excitement, came hurrying up; and Knapp, at John’s suggestion, tore off to the store for more rope.

Dick was a stout swimmer and a wary one. Where the water was backed over the land the work was easy. With great, strong strokes he swam, going with the current, and saving his strength for the dash into the strong water when the boat should drift near enough. On it came, the boy kneeling in the head watching eagerly, the white mass in the bottom motionless. Gathering all his strength, Dick drew hard on the rope to slacken it, and dashed into the current. It was hard work, cruel work, battling with the greedy water for its prey; but he fought on with the dauntless resolution that was part of his nature. The great muscles stood out in the powerful arms; the broad, bare chest rose and fell with each magnificent stroke as evenly and rhythmically as a piece of machinery; the blue eyes were steady and very watchful. They neared each other, the drifting boat and the struggling man. John fell on his knees and cried aloud, “God help him!” and the crowd took it up, crying too, “God help him!”

Woody paid out steadily, letting the rope slip through his hands swiftly as it was needed. The two objects in the water were approaching still more nearly to each other. The boy leaned far over the side, in his eagerness, and stretched out his hand. Dick caught at it, missed it; caught at it again, and was drawn to the side of the boat. A mighty shout went up from the people, who cried, “Thank God! thank God!” But the end was not yet.

Dick swam by the side of the boat, with one hand on the gunwale; but both were in the current drifting down, and there was danger of the rope fouling and dragging him under. Suddenly the strain on it ceased; it hung limp in Woody’s hand, and he pulled it in, a yard at a time. Had it broken? The men groaned in terror and excitement as the boat drifted on.

About a mile below, a great mountain-spur jutted boldly out into the valley, causing the river to make a sharp bend in order to sweep around it. In the elbow formed by this bluff the flood was backed, making a great pond of eddy-water comparatively still. As the current rushed down the centre channel, floating drift was cast aside by the force of the sweep into this eddy, where it circled slowly and lodged against the bluff. Already great logs and piles of débris formed hammocks against the hillside, and Dick noticed the action of the water as he swam. If there had been a paddle, a bit of board, or even a shingle in the boat, he would have scrambled in and endeavored to guide the little vessel into the eddy; but there was nothing. He must try to draw it to the edge of the current by swimming, and let the water throw him out. Hauling up the rope, he made Charlie cut it and fasten one end to the head of the boat, passing it through a hole and doubling it around his shoulders for greater strength. Then swimming obliquely, he drew the boat after him, fighting inch by inch, but gaining slowly. All the long mile the battle continued, until at last victory was achieved. The boat, drawn from the swiftest of the current, was thrown into the eddy-water, where Dick, well-nigh exhausted, laid his hand again on the gunwale to guide her and let her float down towards the bluff.

The men, who had kept pace with them by running and scrambling along the hillside, climbed out over the trash and hammocks, regardless of holes and the danger of rolling logs, intent only on getting at the boat and its occupants. Dick had contrived to wedge it into a tolerably secure place near the shore, and had climbed into it, cutting himself free of the rope. He was bending down close over something in the bottom of the boat, shielding it from sight with his body. “Throw me a coat!” he called; and Woody stripped off his and threw it. Dick rose up presently with something in his arms closely enveloped in the folds of the heavy garment, and leaning over, gently put it into Woody’s arms. It was small and very heavy—the body of a little child.

Then Dick stepped onto the hammock himself with the form of a woman in his arms; a woman in a long white night-dress that clung wet and close to her form, defining every splendid line and curve, from the superb bust and shoulders to the slender, rounded ankles. Her face, pallid as marble, rested against Dick’s breast, and her long black hair, heavy with water, trailed in a dripping mass over his bare white arm and shoulder. Somebody—John—handed him another coat, and he wrapped it around her.