The first rifle-sharp crack of the ice breaking in the river confirmed the coming of Spring. The broad expanse of glistening ice cracked again with a resounding roar. More spider-web lines appeared. Then the river gave a mighty heave before our eyes and the freed blocks were thrown upward in a mighty thrust. As first one massive ice-form and then another was ejected high into the air, the dark waters swirled upward in unaccustomed freedom, to eddy in surprise on the surface. Some of the massive ice blocks sprang from their prison at unsuspecting angles to land high up on the shore. The noise was deafening!
As one section after another was severed, the swirling mass of ice and -water seemed to pause briefly for a moment. Then the river's mighty downstream current took command. Dark water and jagged cakes of ice moved slowly at first past us. Then, seeming to try to make up for the months of immobility, the accumulated mass gathered velocity with each passing moment and hurled itself downstream.
Each day the swollen waters from the melting ice crept up the river bank a little higher. There had been a particularly heavy fall of snow in the Rockies that winter and as the huge ice blocks thawed and melting snows from the mountains ran downhill, the Saskatchewan River became deeper and wider each day. Father said that some of the old-timers were predicting a great flood this year.
"We have no worries on that score!" he stated with confidence.
"That one experience in the tent in Saskatoon certainly taught me that the wise man builds on high ground!"
After a week of rising waters, Father came home to say that the river was now but two inches from the top of the bank, and still rising. Trees, uprooted many miles away, came thundering past our homestead. Entire wooden buildings came hurtling by, leaning at unscientific angles on their ice bases. Our own river side trees were festooned with debris. The buggy could no longer find its way through the rising waters along the trail, so Father hitched our faithful matched greys to the heavier wagon for his daily thirty mile round trip into Saskatoon home again...I was helping Fred herd our dairy cattle in the high pasture one day. The smokestack of a large riverboat moved unbelievably among the trees just below us! We stood transfixed wondering if we could believe our eyes.
Leaving the cows to fend for themselves, we ran down the path the cattle had made to get to the river. There was the riverboat, steaming along over what had been dry land! The laughter of carefree people mingled with singing voices. Fred and I stood rooted to the spot until the fantastic sight disappeared around the bend.
When Father returned home that night he was wild with excite ment. He had seen the same riverboat when it returned to town. Unable to navigate the bridge piers, it had piled up in destruction, still filled with its frolicsome passengers, some of whom had been drinking champagne, it was said! But the carefree passengers had come to sudden grief, and the wreck lay on its side under the bridge where it was to remain for years to come. And still the distended river continued to rise. The stench of rancidness lay everywhere. But still Father went into town each morning to conduct his business...
We were standing on the riverbank one afternoon when Ray began to shout and point in a paroxym of excitement.
"There's a little mouse! Right there! Up on that big chuck of ice this side of that floating tree!"
"Where? Where is it? I don't see any mouse!"
"There it is! I see it now! Oh, the poor little thing! Let's get some sticks and rescue him!"
Sure enough, a tiny grey mouse was perched on a piece of floating ice, looking in bewilderment at the raging torrent around him, and reawakening my personal mouse nightmare of our first Spring.
"Don't you dare go any nearer the water!" Fred's firm voice put an end to any further rescue action, and the three of us stood in ineffectual sadness as the small grey body was whisked along to a questionable end.
That night a group of older men called on all the farmers along the river.
"You must move out, Mr. Sutton," said their spokesman.
"Move out?" said Father in surprised indignation. "I shall do no such thing! The river will never reach THIS house, for, you see, I have built on the highest land!"
"Nevertheless we urge you to start packing a few things, sir. The river is still swelling and it is very early yet in the season. We think it may well come right up here. And even beyond."
"Tush!" said Father. "There is no cause to worry HERE!" And he bade them an ostentatious 'good-night'.
Each morning after that Father looked at the rising river as he climbed up to his seat on the wagon, and mumbled about people who worried needlessly. After all, he had chosen this site for our home with, just such a contingency in mind, hadn't he? One flood experience was enough to teach any thinking man that he must build high on the land! But the river crept higher each day.
It was apparent to Bill, our hired man, that Father was more worried than he cared to admit as be prepared to leave for town on the following morning.
"Keep the children away from the water. I'll try to get hone early," he said, driving off in the wagon.
During the day the river rose over its banks and swallowed the surrounding land. Bill turned the cattle loose to fend for themselves and they took off at once for higher ground back in the interior.
Buzzy, Ray and I sat up on the barn roof playing 'Noah's Ark'. Fred strode back and forth between the barn and the house, looking terribly responsible. Bill quietly busied himself taking the top off the Bain wagon, and lashing logs to the body for a raft.
"Just in case," he said, when we asked him what he was doing. By suppertime Father was still not home. Bill fed us, his anxiety now transferred to the four of us. We were unusually quiet during the meal, and went up to our damp sheets and musty-smelling blankets in a subdued state of mind. I looked out the window and saw that the water had not surrounded the barn. Where, oh where was Father?
I must have dozed, for Fred's voice was the next thing I remember.
"He's home, Patty! Father's back!"
We all thundered down the stairs to stand still abruptly, appalled by the apparition before us. We knew it must be Father, but this creature was covered from crown to sole with reeking mud. As he washed, the familiar features emerged, but they were grey and haggard.
"I didn't think you would come," said Bill, as he helped our parent peel off the vile smelling clothes.
"Of course I would come! Always!" The old conviction was still there, but there was an obvious tremour in his voice that we had never heard before. "The old-timers in town warned me that I would never get through," he said, then added in a tone so low we hardly heard, "And I almost didn't!" Father had had to swim the horses, his beloved greys, vhile they pulled the wagon behind through the swirling waters. They had pulled with every ounce of strength they possessed, and now stood wild-eyed and visibly trembling outside the kitchen door.
"See to them, will, you?" Father entreated Bill.
"Just as soon as I help you out of the rest of these stinking clothes," said Bill with quiet firmness, pulling at one of Father's reluctant boots. As they heaved the last boot free, Bill said, "I think we had better leave, Mr Sutton." Father stuck out his square jaw.
"I don't think the river will rise any more," he said. "This house is built on very high ground!"
No sooner had he finished speaking than we heard a wrenching of timbers and thunderous groanings. Racing to the window, we saw to our complete horror, the sod barn disintegrating. There was a frantic race to scoop up hysterical hens, two new suckling pigs and anything we could grab, as we sloched through the muddy waters. I clutched the old gander, which I had always hated, tightly in my arms. He snuggled into my safety with gratitude.
By the next morning the water was rapidly swallowing the rest of the yard around our house. It didn't look like very high ground to me, looking out the window at the expanding water. There was no possibility of Father making the trip into town today, we all noted with satisfaction, as he wandered, aimlessly throughout the house.
"I think I should go ever and see how Mrs Lang is faring," said Bill. "She will be worse off than we are here because she is in a hollow."
"Take Beauty, then," said Father. "She is stronger for riding and will get you through if any horse can."
We watched Bill mount Beauty who had been tethered at the side of the house. Man and horse entered the water, and we watched as Bill slid from her back to hang onto her tail, both swimming strongly as we saw them disappear in the distance.
"Is he really a good swimmer?" I asked Father, anxious for our friend's safety.
"I understand he was a champion back in New Zealand," said Father, but he too looked worried.
Silently and individually we awaited their return. All night long Father paced the floor, so anxious that he could neither eat nor sleep. Early the next morning, two Mounties rowed up to our back door.
"Come, Mr. Sutton. You and your family must leave at once!"
"We can't possibly leave," said Father haughtily. "Our man has gone to the neighbour's and we are waiting for his return. Besides, this house is built on high ground, and the water will never reach this far!"
"Your man and horse were found this morning. They are both drowned."
"Drowned?" We were unable to comprehend. Bill had stood here in our kitchen last night, safe and sound! And Beauty! Both gone?
"What happened?" Father's voice was high and cracked. "He was a champion swimmer..."
"The horse's traces probably got fouled in floating debris or barbed wire," one Mountie volunteered. "In any case, you and your family must leave her RIGHT NOW! Gather the bare essentials and come along into the boat.'"
Father began to argue.
"There is nothing more to say, sir. Get into the boat!"
Father stood there for a long moment, his lofty bearing towering over both the Mounties. The two men stared back at him with level gaze. Suddenly, as meek as Moses, Father climbed into the boat with us. We waited in vain for one of his customary verbal harangues. But like us, he sat in silence as the two Mounties rowed through the unfamiliar water.
It was a strange trip. Like being in another world. All that had been familiar and accepted in our everyday life had suddenly vanished. We were adrift in an unknown world. Logs floated around the boat, to be pushed away by an oar in the momentary break of the union of rowed rhythm.
"Where are you taking us?" Father asked as we left our house far behind.
"Up to the Watsons", one of the Mounties replied. "Who are the Watsons?" I asked Fred in a small voice.
"I'm not sure, but I think he is the man who said Billy's horns should be sawed off," Fred replied in equally soft tones. Eventually we ran aground on a high hill overlooking the entire Valley, and turned towards a farmhouse showing in silhouette against the sky, its welcoming lights casting a warm glow along the path.
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