It was a bright spring morning in May, 1864. There had been much rain in Massachusetts. The ground was soaked with moisture. The streams were full to the brink. But overhead the sky was clear, and the sum shone warm and bright upon the glad earth. The trees were new-clad in their bright spring vesture, the orchards were white with bloom. It was the happiest time of the year.
In the Hampshire hills that morning nearly everybody was out of doors. The softness of the air, the beauty of the landscape, the music of nature, called to young and old to come out and enjoy life at its fullest. The children were loitering on their way to school. The men were in the fields getting ready for the spring planting. The women were busy in their dooryards or in their little flower gardens, here training a budding vine or lifting up a fallen branch, there dropping a seed or transplanting some favorite shrub.
In the Williamsburg valley, life had never seemed sweeter than on that quiet spring morning. But suddenly a nameless thrill passed through the air. The children paused in the middle of the road. The women looked up and listened. The men stopped short in their work and glanced inquiringly first at the river and then at the green hills above them.
"What was that?" each asked the other.
Some thought it was a passing gust of wind among the trees. Some said a rock had been suddenly loosened from its place on the hillside. Others declared that it was only the mountain brooks rushing down, with more than their usual volume, to meet the roaring river.
"The river is wider than I ever saw it before," said the miller, standing in his door; "and it seems to be growing wider every minute."
Then a shouting was heard far up the road, and the sound of galloping hoofs. The river roared louder and louder, and each little brook seemed to be a torrent. Every heart was filled with a feeling of terror. Nearer and nearer came the sound of the galloping horse, and far away, above the roar of the streams, you might have heard the shrieking of women and the wild shouting of men.
And now down the narrow road the horse and his rider comes. The horseman waves his arms wildly and shouts as he rides.
"It is Collins Graves," say the wondering women. Everybody in the valley knows him, plain young farmer as he is; but nobody ever saw him ride as now.
His voice is hoarse with shouting. He points backward, and then upward to the hills. He draws no rein, but urges his panting steed right onward while he shouts,—
"The dam has burst! To the hills! To the hills for your lives!"
He is gone as swiftly as he came, carrying the warning to the farms and villages below. The roar of the great flood is now distinctly heard. With shrieks and shouts, men, women, and children hasten to climb the hills; nor do they reach them a moment too soon.
A mighty wave comes sweeping down the valley like some rearing monster. It carries everything before it. The mill, the bridge, the village, houses, barns, cattle, all are ingulfed and swept away. But, thanks to Collins Graves, the heroic horseman, the children are all safe, high up on the hills, and safe also are the women and the men. Safe, too, is the hero himself, as he checks his steed on high ground at the foot of the valley below which the flood can do no harm.
"Thank God! The brave man's life is spared!
From Williamsburg town he nobly dared
To race with the flood and take the road
In front of the terrible swath it mowed.
For miles it thundered and crashed behind,
But he looked ahead with a steadfast mind;
'They must be warned!' was all he said,
As away on his terrible ride he sped.
"When heroes are called for, bring the crown
To this Yankee rider; send him down
On the stream of time with the Curtius old.
His deed as the Roman's was brave and bold,
And the tale can as noble a thrill awake,
For he offered his life for the people's sake."
—John Boyle O'Reilly.